GREAT FALLS- Great Falls public schools are re-defining what it means to have a therapy animal.
However, it’s important to point out there's still a very big difference between service animals and therapy animals.
Katie McGraw is a student at Paris Gibson High School and is the only student to have a service animal in any high school in Great Falls.
“I don't even have to think about the dog except for to say hello to him in the morning. He's the most well mannered animal I’ve ever seen,” says Julie Murray, the special education teacher at Paris Gibson High School. “The student that I have, she uses the dog. Mostly he brings her just happiness and helps ease her. She feels more comfortable when he's with her,” further explains Murray.
“He's my best friend,” says McGraw.
Tommy, Katie’s service animal, is by Katie’s side almost every second of every day.
However, there are times Tommy has to stay in his crate and let Katie do her own thing such as when she’s at work or lunch.
For Katie, those breaks are more than enough time away from her best friend; because without him, things just wouldn't be the same.
“He would not make me happy. He would not talk to other people...” says McGraw.
Tommy has been in Katie’s classroom for a week now, and the students don't even notice him anymore, with Murray saying Tommy is simply an extension of Katie.
In fact, that's the job of any service animal; to become an extension of their handler.
Now however, schools are specifying the difference between what is considered a service animal and a therapy animal.
“There have been some odds things that people have showed up with. There was a parrot that would squawk really loudly every once and a while, so 90% of the time it was fine, but then there would be this huge squawk and it would rattle everybody in the room,” explains Murray.
There has been an increasing trend when it comes to therapy animals across Great Falls public schools, which is why new rules needed to be put into place.
“To give some continuity to how we're going to regulate the use of therapy animals in the district, we had to have some policy and procedural guidance,” explains Thomas Moore, superintendent for Great Falls public schools.
At the end of the day, a service animal provides assistance to someone with a definitive disability and is protected by the law; while a therapy animal is typically used to provide comfort in stressful situations.
If you have any questions about the new policies, talk to your school's principal for more information.