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“Little bit of happiness”: DCHS Senior Jenna Hurst to compete in regional FCCLA competition with research on therapy dogs in schools
DCHS Senior Jenna Hurst, left, stands with her FCCLA Advisor Lori Grant. Hurst is currently in the midst of preparing a portfolio and oral presentation on therapy dogs to present during the FCCLA regional competition in February. - photo by Erica Jones

As students in schools across the country have come back to class following nationwide shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them have experienced ongoing anxiety, stress or other emotional changes because of all they’ve been through. When Dawson County High School senior Jenna Hurst’s education pathway teacher and FCCLA advisor, Lori Grant, brought her dog Harley to class, Hurst noticed a positive change in the mood of every student the dog came in contact with. 

Now, Hurst has put in dozens of hours researching therapy dogs and other school system’s policies about them and is planning on presenting her research as her project for the regional FCCLA (Family, Career and Community Leaders of America) competition in February. 

Grant said Hurst’s idea for her project originally stemmed out of reading a book called “Out of My Mind” in her class. The book is about a girl who has cerebral palsy, and her family gets her a dog. Prompted by the book, Grant’s class decided to do their own research on the different types of therapy dogs, emotional support dogs and service dogs. 

“It kinda led to a whole bunch of different projects, and after we learned what a therapy dog was and that they have them in school my class kept asking if we could get a therapy dog for our class,” Grant said. “So the next school year they kept coming up and asking about it, and I had gotten my own dog just for me to train as a service dog, and I ended up bringing him a few times and the kids loved it… but we didn’t have a policy or anything about therapy dogs and if teachers can bring them in.” 

Hurst said the system’s lack of a policy, whether permitting or not permitting therapy dogs in school, gave her the idea to research the topic further and to see what other school systems across the country say about it. 

“I started with looking at all the research we had gathered from our Level 2 class and then we started getting different policies and things like that from different schools from all over — there were schools in Georgia, up north, all over,” Hurst said. “So I just started picking those apart, pulling together the similarities about how you have to have this kind of training, this kind of insurance, this kind of certificate, and so on.” 

Hurst has been researching the topic and compiling information about it, and all of the research will culminate with a presentation in February at the FCCLA regional competition. During the competition, Hurst will present her project and why the topic is important. 

According to Hurst, one of the biggest driving factors in her selecting therapy dogs as her project topic was her first-hand experience of seeing what a difference Grant’s dog could make in a day for all the students he came in contact with. 

“It just changed the atmosphere,” Hurst said. “We could have just taken the worst test in that class, and everybody was happy. It changed everybody’s mood and brightened everybody’s day; it had a very positive impact on everybody regardless of how the day was going or what they had just done or anything like that.” 

In the competition, Hurst’s project will be under the category of a “Public Policy Advocate”, in which participants identify a concern, research the topic, identify a target audience, form an action plan and advocate for the issue in an effort to positively affect a policy or law.

As part of her project, Hurst presented her research to several members of the Dawson County Board of Education in hopes of the creation of a policy in the school system allowing therapy dogs for the students. Grant said that she and Hurst are hopeful that the presentation might help lead to the implementation of such policies. 

“We’re just kind of waiting with our fingers crossed to see what their decision is gonna be,” Grant said. “But we know they’re always open to what’s best for our students, so whatever they decide we’ll be okay with — they’re always really really good to listen and take feedback and I really have faith in whatever their decision is.” 

Hurst said one reason she’s hoping that policies might be created is that she plans on attending college and hopes to return to Dawson County High School as a Family and Consumer Science teacher to teach the same types of classes that Grant teaches now. She said that, if therapy dog policies were implemented, she would love to be able to tell her students that she helped to make that happen. 

“I want to come back after I go to college and this is the class I want to teach, so that’s really helped kind of push through this project and the work it’s been,” Hurst said. “I know it’s gonna be a positive impact, but I also wanna be able to come back and use that as a part of my class; and be able to touch on that as a teacher and look at my students and say ‘you can do it, you can do something to change somebody’.” 

Hurst and Grant added having therapy dogs in the school system would go hand-in-hand with the school’s improvement plan, which aims at catering to students’ social and emotional learning as well as academic learning. 

“There’s kids even at the elementary school that just need that little bit of happiness in their life, they need that little bit of light in their day,” Hurst said. “I have a practicum over at Robinson and I’m in first grade, and I even see over there that there’s certain kids that just need a little happiness in their life and a little something different in their day so that’s one of the things we really focused on.” 

Hurst is currently in the midst of preparing a portfolio and a 10-minute oral presentation that she will present to a panel during the competition in February. She will be graded on her presentation by a rubric which, according to Grant, is very strict but she believes Hurst will do well despite the challenge. 

“The rubrics are pretty intricate and pretty detailed and pretty complicated so it can seem intimidating,” Grant said, “but Jenna is very capable; I can just hand it to her and she does it.” 

Should Hurst place in the regional competition, she’ll go on to the state competition in March and then hopes to move on to the national FCCLA competition, which will be in San Diego in the end of June. 

Grant said she’s proud of all the hard work Hurst has put into her project and that she can’t wait to continue supporting her in the upcoming competition. 

“She’s worked super hard on putting all of this together; her presentation is outstanding,” Grant said. “Her heart is so in it and it’s such an important thing for her; I’m just so proud of her.”