Going to the dogs: More courts, schools use therapy dogs to lower anxiety, stress

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

On a snowy day in early January, second-graders at Walled Lake's Mary Guest Elementary School gathered on a colorful rug in teacher Mary Stire's classroom, bubbling with excitement. A special guest was in their room that morning: Champ, the school's therapy dog.

Once a week for an hour, Champ, a 1 1/2-year-old female chocolate Labrador, visits the students' classroom, as she does every class in the building. Students take turns reading with Champ and petting her. She has her own dog bed in each classroom.

"When I'm around Champ, she makes me really happy," said Sydney Latimer, 8. "She makes me comfortable at school."

Sydney Latimer, left, 8, and Aina Malile, 7, read a story to Champ during class as Walled Lake's Mary Guest Elementary School students interact with the therapy dog, Wednesday, January 8, 2020.

Therapy dogs like Champ are becoming an increasingly common sight in the public sector as officials look for different ways to boost social and emotional support for kids. From juvenile courts to school districts in Metro Detroit, therapy dogs are being used to reduce anxiety, lower stress and boost performance. Supporters say the benefits have been "immeasurable." 

At least 11 school districts in Michigan now have therapy dogs in place as do two juvenile courts. And more than 18 prosecutor's offices in Michigan have dogs through the Canine Advocacy Program.

Macomb County's Juvenile Court in Mount Clemens got its own therapy dog, a goldendoodle named Izzy, last fall. Five days a week, Izzy comes to work with her handler, Amy Mitchell, a casework supervisor, to the eight-floor court. She sits in on detention hearings for juvenile delinquents or therapy sessions where kids have to talk about difficult subjects like sexual offenses. Sometimes she just makes her way through the waiting area on each floor, pausing for anyone who'd like to give her a pet. 

“She’s just relaxing,” said Sarah Gillies, a treatment therapist in Macomb County who visited the court in late December for a hearing with one of her clients, taking a moment to pet Izzy. “She makes the atmosphere calmer.” 

Walled Lake Consolidated Schools, Oakland County's second largest school district, started its therapy dog pilot program with two dogs — Champ, who started in March 2019, and Dakoda, a golden Labrador at Walled Lake Western High School that started in the fall of 2019. It's been so successful that supporters are now raising funds to hopefully one day place a therapy dog in every school in the nearly 14,000-student district.

Ann Gray, a counselor at Walled Lake Western and Dakoda's handler, said fights have decreased since Dakoda's arrival at the high school and she's helped reduce testing anxiety and emotional issues for some students.

"We knew it would make a difference. We didn't know how much," said Gray. "It's amazing. It's so therapeutic."

And while therapy dogs come at a significant cost — Walled Lake's dogs cost at least $8,000 each to purchase and train, all of which was paid for by donors — officials say they're worth it.

"I’ve seen kids that may have some anxiety about school, they see the dog and get a chance to pet it and they're right back on track," said Gregory Gray, superintendent at Brighton Area Schools, which has one of the most extensive therapy dog programs in Michigan with 12 dogs spread throughout the district, including three at the high school alone.

But like any new program, officials say there were adjustments as they put their dogs in place. Administrators in Walled Lake had to work out how they'd deal with students or staff who have allergies or are afraid of dogs. But most say none of those potential problems have been an issue.

Walled Lake's Mary Guest Elementary School second grader Dylan Viola, 8, talks about how Champ made him feel better after a incident at school.

Dylan Viola, 8, leaned on Champ for a little help not long ago. Very anxious about seeing a visiting dentist at the school — Guest is a Title 1 school, meaning it has a significant number of low-income students — Dylan, a second-grader, asked if Champ would come with him to have his teeth examined. It helped.

"She can make you calm down," said Dylan.

Wider use of therapy dogs

Therapy dogs aren't new in many settings. Beaumont Hospital, for example, uses 70 dogs in its Assisted Pet Therapy program to soothe patients. And roughly 18 prosecutor's offices in Michigan have therapy dogs through the Canine Advocacy Program, a training program based in West Bloomfield Township.

But what's changing is how widely dog therapy programs are being introduced and implemented, especially in courts and schools.

Studies show therapy dogs can reduce stress and provide a sense of connection in difficult situations. 

Judge Dorene S. Allen of the Midland County Probate and Juvenile Court has seen the effects of therapy dogs in stressful situations firsthand. Allen introduced two therapy dogs in Midland County in the last five years — Dory, a boxer who has worked at the county's juvenile detention facility since 2015, and Clyde, a 2 1/2-year-old yellow lab that has been coming to the juvenile court since he has 8 weeks old.

"I've always found dogs to be a great facilitator," said Allen, who owns Clyde with her husband and is his handler.

Allen said many of the children she deals with have faced significant trauma in their lives — including abuse and neglect — and court itself can be incredibly stressful. What the therapy dogs do is provide nonjudgmental comfort.

"We deal with birth, death and everything in between, people who are traumatized and he (Clyde) is a healer," said Allen.

Clyde — known as Courthouse Clyde; he has his own Facebook page — has become so popular that kids now request him when they come to the court. Allen said she had one teen appear before her, a juvenile delinquent who'd had a difficult background and had committed a crime, who was having a bad day. 

"She asked for Clyde," Allen said. "We did that. Clyde comes right in with this girl and she talks to Clyde. The kids will talk to a dog before they’ll talk to humans."

When Macomb's juvenile court was contemplating getting its own therapy dog, Nicole Faulds, the juvenile court administrator, reached out to Allen for guidance.

Izzy, a female golden doodle therapy dog in training, greets Macomb County Juvenile Justice Center treatment therapist Sarah Gillies, left, and two teenage males before their review hearings.

The Macomb Juvenile Court deals with more than 4,500 children a year. Aged 8-16, they are kids who are considered at risk because of abuse, neglect or delinquency. The court runs a variety of programs, from prevention to detention in an outside facility.

Faulds said regardless of what people may think of juvenile delinquents, many have had challenging lives. The court's goal, she said, is to help them be successful.

"We want to help them turn their lives around," said Faulds.

And given how intimidating court can be, Faulds said, they thought a therapy dog would help.

"We thought it would be one more tool to help build relationships with the kids – to help them get through their probation process," she said.

Before becoming a therapy dog, Izzy faced her own traumatic background. She belonged to a family in Shelby Township, one of 22 dogs the family had been hoarding, Faulds said, before animal control officials intervened and she was rescued.

Knowing the court wanted to start with a rescue, Macomb Animal Control Officer Jeff Randazzo reached out to Faulds about Izzy.

"He called one day and said 'I have the perfect dog,'" said Faulds.

But it took training for both Izzy and her handler, Mitchell, before she was ready to come to court.  

Amanda Marinello,  a professional dog trainer at Happy Tails Learning Center for Dogs in Shelby Township, worked with Izzy and Mitchell, teaching her commands like "place" and exposing her to potentially stressful situations.

Macomb County's 16th Circuit Court - Juvenile Division caseworker supervisor Amy Mitchell pets Izzy, her therapy dog in training, before Izzy greets teenagers prior to their review hearings.

"I worked a lot on building her confidence," said Marinello, who also worked with the court's staff to get them used to Izzy. "I wanted to make sure that no matter what uncomfortable situations she was put in with Amy at work she’d rely on her obedience training."

On a weekday in mid-December, Izzy, just two months into her tenure, calmly roamed the court's halls in downtown Mount Clemens wearing a purple vest that read "Therapy Dog in Training." As two teens waited for a hearing before a referee — one with the words "Trust No One" tattooed on his forearm — Izzy sat patiently at their feet as the teens petted her. 

"Izzy could do this all day," said Faulds.

Faulds says Izzy has already worked out so well — even boosting morale among court employees — that she's gotten calls from the county's mental health and veterans courts that have requested her.

"We're the dog pilot right now," Faulds said.

Social-emotional support

If any public facility has been a pioneer in using therapy dogs in school settings — and seeing the effects — it's Brighton Area Schools. 

The nearly 6,000-student district started its program more than a decade ago, spearheaded by teacher Karen Storey. Today, the district has dogs at every one of its eight schools, along with a senior center and daycare facility.

The district also provides guidance to other schools thinking about getting their own dogs and lend out their dogs when traumatic situations happen elsewhere. When Grosse Pointe Schools lost two elementary students in a devastating house fire last year, Brighton brought a dog to the district to help soothe students.

Storey and Gray said not a week goes by that officials from other schools districts aren't visiting Brighton to find out more about how to start their own therapy dog program.

"It's pretty much every Friday," said Gray.

Storey said the idea to get a dog 10 years ago started when a colleague at her elementary school with Parkinson's Disease had a service dog. Storey's students, a special education class, desperately wanted to interact with the dog but couldn't. That planted the idea of her school getting its own dog.

Brighton Area Schools' therapy dogs — referred to as "the pack" — hang out on an athletic field in the district. The district has therapy dogs at all eight of its schools, along with the Brighton Senior Center.

But with the economy deep in the recession, Storey knew she couldn't ask the district for funds. She started reaching out to businesses instead. She quickly raised $10,000 to buy and train the district's first dog.

"That was the easy part," said Storey. "This community was extremely supportive."

Today, the district has 12 dogs, primarily Labradors, all paid for by donations (bigger donors get naming rights) and housed with different handlers. Each dog's job depends on the school where he or she is placed and the needs of the students there, Storey said.

"The number one need now is social-emotional — the ability for them to relate to others, managing their emotions, resolving conflict," said Storey.

On a recent school day, Storey was in the hallway at the high school when she overhead students talking about their best elementary school memories. Their favorite: the school's therapy dog, Duncan.

"The dogs open the door for staff to reach kids at a more personal level," said Storey.