There are many ways to solve a mental health crisis in young people, including throwing a big birthday party for a dog named Gravy.
A sweet-natured chocolate lab, Gravy quickly became a celebrity with students at Grand Ledge High School after starting work there as a therapy dog in September. She showed tricks in the hallways with her manager, dean of students Maria Capra. When the students knelt down to pet Gravy, she crawled into their lap.
So when the students learned that Gravy’s first birthday fell just before the Thanksgiving holiday, they asked Capra if they could throw a party.
She said sure, thinking it wouldn’t amount to much. Afterwards, the student council put up posters around the school, inviting all 1,600 students in the school to attend. The students made a crown and skirt for Gravy, while others held a fundraiser for the local animal shelter in her honor.
On the big day, “I really didn’t know what to expect,” Capra recalled. “I thought it might be a class of 30 kids.
“There were several hundred students in that gymnasium.”
The pandemic has been difficult for students at Grand Ledge and across the United States. Many young people have experienced isolation, disruption and the loss of loved ones, leading to an alarming increase in suicide rates and prompting the American Academy of Pediatrics to declare a national emergency in children’s mental health.
Schools have responded by hiring social workers, expanding their social-emotional learning programs and, in some cases, buying dogs.
Sauce is one of at least a dozen dogs that have been introduced to students during the pandemic at Michigan schools.
Districts are purchasing dogs and covering the costs of training them with their share of Michigan’s $6 billion in federal COVID-19 education funds.
One reason: dogs make children happy.
“He’s kind of like a rock star; when the kids see it coming, they smile,” said Traci Souva, an art teacher at North Huron Schools who looks after Chipper, the district’s newest golden mountain doodle. “A lot of times kids will tell Chipper what’s wrong rather than adults, and that’s pretty magical.”
Another reason: The dogs appeal to administrators who fear using one-time federal funds to incur recurring costs like hiring new people.
“We wanted to make sure we were using the funds in a way that was going to have a lasting impact,” said Bill Barnes, assistant superintendent of academic services at Grand Ledge Public Schools. “We will have the dogs all their lives.”
And one more: research suggests that the presence of a trained dog reduces children’s stress, promotes a positive attitude towards learningand smooths interactions between students and other children.
The potential downsides of having dogs in schools — particularly sanitation, allergies and student fears — are manageable, Barnes said. The new Grand Ledge dogs are highly trained and hypoallergenic, and they are always accompanied by a dog handler who ensures that no student is forced to interact with the dogs. He said the district has not received any complaints from parents about the dogs.
A dog trained to work in a school usually costs between $10,000 and $15,000. Districts plan to spend at least $182,000 of their COVID funds to buy or rent dogs for emotional support, according to spending plans reviewed through a collaborative project involving Chalkbeat, the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Michigan.
That’s a tiny slice of the available federal COVID money. Districts are spending the bulk of their funds on improving school building ventilation, hiring additional social workers and counselors, expanding summer schools, and providing teacher bonuses .
The justice system has long used therapy dogs to soothe the nerves of children giving difficult testimonies, said Nikki Brown, a dog trainer, school counselor and executive director of Canines for Change, a nonprofit that trains children. dogs for work in schools.
Since the pandemic, the demand for trained dogs in schools “just exploded”, she said. Over the past year, she said, her organization has provided dogs to at least seven Michigan districts, including Grand Ledge.
“The dogs are highly trained to be in a school environment,” she said. “They are trained to work with autistic children and children with emotional issues. They feel the stress. By the behavior of the dogs, they could alert a teacher or counselor to a child who may be having emotional difficulties.
Souva recalled a time earlier in the school year when Chipper seemed to smell stress.
“A child had broken up with his significant other, and Chipper decided to lay down right next to his chair,” she said.
Bringing dogs to schools for emotional support isn’t new to Michigan. Grand Ledge administrators were already considering the idea before the pandemic after visiting Brighton State Schools, which have had dogs on staff for years. Then COVID hit and the federal government sent a record amount to help schools support students through difficult times. The Grand Ledge District has decided to put a dog in its eight schools.
Staff members applied to care for the dogs, meaning they would train with the dogs, provide them with homes and manage them during school days.
The dogs were ready to work with the students when school resumed this fall. The impact was obvious right away, said Jill Ford, a fourth grade teacher at Grand Ledge who manages a goldendoodle named Alfie.
“There were a few students at the start of the school year who refused to get out of the car to go to school,” she says. “The counselor was using Alfie to get them out of the car, and they were getting a few minutes from Alfie in the counselor’s office. Now they don’t need her anymore.
Gravy’s birthday party tops the list of factors that helped Grand Ledge high school students feel comfortable about their return to in-person learning, Capra said. Gravy was off work for two weeks after being sterilized, and students ask about her every day.
Capra said: “I’ve had kids ask me, ‘Can we have a welcome party for her? “”
Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit, covering K-12 schools and early childhood education. Contact Koby at [email protected]