CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Gov. Jim Justice and First Lady Cathy Justice announced the first statewide school therapy dog program in West Virginia which includes several schools in north central West Virginia.

The Friends With Paws program will place certified therapy dogs in schools across the state, providing companionship and comfort for students.

The program will be a partnership between the Governor’s Office, West Virginia Communities In Schools (CIS) Nonprofit and the West Virginia Department of Education.

Therapy dogs will be placed in schools within CIS counties where students are disproportionately affected by poverty, substance misuse, or other at-risk situations, and are in the greatest need of a support animal, according to a release from Gov. Justice. The dogs will serve as a healthy and friendly outlet for these students to address trauma and other social-emotional issues.

Gov. Justice announces Friends With Paws (Courtesy: Gov. Justice)

“Friends With Paws is going to give our kids the best gift of all: unconditional love,” Gov. Justice said. “I love every single one of our kids in this state. I say all the time, our kids are the greatest treasure we have. But, unfortunately, some of our kids aren’t loved to the magnitude that they deserve. Having therapy dogs in our classrooms is going to make a lot of kids’ days brighter.”

The following north central West Virginia schools will add therapy dogs:

  • Buckhannon Academy Elementary School in Upshur County will receive a male Golden Labradoodle named Foster.
  • Lewis County High School in Lewis County will receive a female Yellow Labrador named Jasper.
  • Green Bank Elementary-Middle School in Pocahontas County will receive a male Yellow Labrador named Jet.
Fields with Paws (Courtesy: Gov. Justice)

Welch Elementary School in McDowell County will also be received a male Black Labrador Retriever named Coal. Welch will be the first school to welcome their pup.

The initial goal of the program is to place a total of at least 10 dogs in West Virginia schools in 2022.

The Governor and First Lady were joined for today’s ceremony by Executive Assistant to the First Lady Vicki Shannon and Special Assistant to the First Lady Katie Morris, who the First Lady announced will serve as the state’s Dog Czar for the Friends With Paws program.

The therapy dogs will belong to each individual school and will become part of the community. 

A 2019 study published by the National Institute of Health found that a dog’s presence in the classroom promotes a positive mood and provides significant anti-stress effects on the body. 

In addition, research shows that the simple act of petting animals releases an automatic relaxation response. Therapy animals lower anxiety and help people relax, provide comfort, reduce loneliness, and increase mental stimulation. They are also shown to lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health, reduce the amount of medications some people need, help control breathing in those with anxiety, and diminish overall physical pain, among other profound benefits.

“I’m incredibly excited because anything and everything we can do to make life better for our kids, we need to be doing it,” Gov. Justice said. “We’ve seen it with Babydog, just how therapeutic dogs can be for us all. She loves everybody and she always makes everybody smile. She brings a lot of joy to people, and that’s exactly what these dogs with Friends With Paws will bring to our kids.

“The most incredible thing about a dog is they never have a bad day,” Gov. Justice continued. “When these kids show up, these dogs will show them love like you can’t imagine, and these kids will know it. That unconditional love is transcendent. It makes life better. It will make their performance in the classroom better. With all our kids have to deal with today – between the pressures of social media, the bullying, everything that’s going on in their lives, plus some being hungry – anything we can do to make their days a little brighter, we need to do.”