Therapy Dogs Build Special Bonds

By Brenda Ortega / MEA Voice editor

Because he’s a well-trained therapy dog for Brighton Area Schools, Duncan knows to go to his carpet or pillow when he enters a classroom. It’s better to bring the kids to the dog than the other way around.

But one day the three-year-old yellow Labrador walked into the Junior Kindergarten class, spotted a little boy struggling with his emotions, and quietly settled next to the child who began petting the dog.

“That child’s sadness melted away, and Duncan was able to get him back on track,” said MEA member Karen Storey, the special education teacher responsible for bringing Duncan to the district.

Scenes like that are why Storey has spent 10 years building a program in Brighton considered to be a first in the nation. By this spring, every school in the district will have a trained therapy dog in service – and the high school will have three – completely funded by the community.

The “Pack of Dogs” program is one component of the district’s efforts to address increasing mental health needs of students over the past several years – a problem reported by districts of all sizes across Michigan.

“Kids are bringing so many issues to school—anxieties and fears that are different from even five years ago, issues our society as a whole is struggling with,” Storey said. “Our dogs help build relationships. Students see staff members with dogs as safe, caring, and approachable.”

Storey’s inspiration was sparked a decade ago when she saw the interest students showed in a service dog assisting a school counselor who had Parkinson’s disease. The kids were not allowed to pet Ivan, but the instant connection she saw between children and animal got her thinking.

“Dr. (Greg) Gray had just started as our superintendent. I went to him and said, ‘Listen, you don’t know me, but this is what I want to do,’ and he said, ‘Go for it.’”

Gray has since become a true believer in the program’s value, he said. “I thought the dogs would be cute and sweet, but over the last nine years in a million different situations day to day, they are a member of our staff.”

The initiative started with one dog now ready to retire, Caesar, and grew slowly. Today six dogs work in various Brighton schools, and that number will rise to 11 in coming weeks. Eventually dogs will be placed at the alternative high school and an intergenerational building that houses a senior center and preschool. One dog will be used for emergencies throughout the district.

The therapy dogs complement other district initiatives to address students’ social-emotional well-being. In the past two years, additional counselors and behavioral interventionists have been added, and the district partners with community mental health service providers.

Duncan works at Storey’s grade 5-6 school, Maltby Intermediate, where he plays many roles.

On some days, he calms a student with special needs who occasionally resists being removed from his wheelchair (until Duncan arrives). Other students who become anxious or defiant doing classwork that is particularly challenging for them discover Duncan’s presence helps them focus.

“We had a boy who used to scribble on his paper during writing time, but Duncan motivates him to complete his work so he can read it out loud to the dog, who is completely non-judgmental,” she said. “He’ll say, all excited, ‘Duncan listened to my story!’”

Lonely children on the playground find a friend. Students too anxious to get off the morning bus receive comfort to start their day. Even fatigued staff members get the clinically-proven benefit of interacting with a dog to turn negative emotions around.

In addition, the dog is the focus of a Positive Behavioral Intervention Support (PBIS), called “Pawsitive Deeds,” in which at-risk students get noticed for positive behavior with entries in a weekly drawing to spend part of Friday with Duncan.

Like the other therapy dogs in the district, Duncan adheres to a schedule that rotates him around all of the building’s classrooms throughout the week. Like his human colleagues, he enjoys a lunch break and “prep” time which mostly involves napping and snacking on carrots and ice.

Special demands override the dogs’ schedule. For example, Duncan temporarily shifted to other buildings to help with students grieving family deaths or losses of classmates to medical conditions, auto accidents, and suicide.

“He just helps fill that void for kids,” Storey said. “It’s beyond words, but you can see it. The students say, ‘He makes me feel safe,’ and ‘He made me feel happy.’”

At night, the dogs go home with their host families—school employees and administrators who apply for the job and agree to adhere to the demands of upholding the dog’s training and bringing them to occasional events at night.

All of the dogs attend home football and basketball games, dressed in school jerseys to cheer on the Bulldogs.

“They work hard, and they’re exhausted by the end of the day,” Storey said.

MEA member Stacie Richards, the media specialist at Hornung Elementary School, is host to one of the newest dogs, a one-year-old black Labrador named Shadow who is working at her school in a limited capacity until he gets acclimated.

Richards said she couldn’t believe how effective the dogs have been in helping students who struggle with anxiety or have trouble focusing. “It’s just been incredible,” she said. “I really can’t say enough good things about what this program has done for our kids.”

The district owns the dogs, although donations from local businesses and organizations cover the $8,500-$10,000 cost of buying and training them. Vet care and food is donated. The biggest community boosters get their names printed on vests the dogs wear as identification.

“Not one penny for this comes out of the district budget,” Storey said. “It’s a giveback from the community to these kids.”

The program’s ambitious scale and the district’s success in building school-community partnerships has drawn attention from all over the U.S. and Canada. Dozens of interested educators and school officials have called or visited Brighton to learn how it’s done.

Storey tells them it’s not easy – from finding dogs and trainers, to raising money, coordinating schedules, and training students and staff on how to interact with the animals responsibly. But the payoff is worth it, she said.

“There’s a lot of work involved; this is not just bringing a dog in and saying, ‘OK, here’s this dog.’ But it’s been so amazing. This is my passion.”

Learn more about the program at www.baspackofdogs.weebly.com.

[Watch for the February issue of MEA Voice magazine, featuring a special report on growing concerns about student mental health and the work that MEA members – like Karen Storey – are doing to respond.]

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