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Therapy dogs help students, staff grieve over loss of teacher

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Posted at 5:34 PM, Jan 08, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-08 18:47:59-05

For many students, Tuesday marked the first day back to school from winter break, but staff and students at Miller Heights Elementary School said a big part of their family was missing.

The school took the time to remember its beloved P.E. teacher known as "Coach S" by inviting therapy dogs on campus.

Gabriella Rodriguez said she was happy to be greeted by dogs on her first day back from winter break.

"I felt happy because it kind of reminds me when my dog ran away and it kind of brings back memories," said Gabriella. 

The dogs were on campus to help students and staff deal with what they call a tragic loss.

After a December shooting that ended in an hours-long standoff with police, Miller Heights Elementary School teacher Shelly Splittgerber lost her life and so did her mother, while her 4-year-old son Corden Fidler, who survived, is still on the road to recovery.  

"Our community has suffered a devastating loss and right now we're working to process through that with our students and with our staff too," said Miller Heights Elementary Principal Jennifer Conner.

In order to create a safe space to process emotions, the school invited half a dozen therapy dogs to help students and staff grieve in their own way.

"The animal-assisted therapy is just wonderful because it helps the children to process some of those difficult complex emotions," said Conner. 

"So grief recovery is one of those processes that the students that are working with the dogs learn," said Amanda Davis, owner of Golden Rule Retrievers, who brought the dogs to the school.

Students also practiced breathing exercises and shared thoughtful words about Coach S.

"I like Coach S. She was really nice," said Gabriella.

"We're doing everything we can right now to provide as much social-emotional needs as we can," said Conner. 

Gabriella said the dogs helped her feel better and she is glad she got to spend time with Coach S.

"I miss Coach S so much, and the thing that I remember of her that brings back memories is when we did the obstacle course," said Gabriella.

"And of course we're going to miss her very much," said Conner. 

By the end of the day, all of the students got a chance to play with the therapy dogs, and for the days to come, the school will offer continued support for any students and staff who may need it.

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