School can play many roles in a child’s life: it’s the place kids learn, it can be the place they eat, and play. And it can also be the place they go for help. Along with people like counselors and nurses, some schools are adding therapy dogs to their staffs to address students’ emotional needs.
At the Prairie School, a private school in Racine, you can see clear evidence that Bell, the comfort dog, is a bona fide member of the staff.
She has an email address, and a spot in one of the offices – outside of which, she even has a mailbox. Kids can write Bell letters, and she’ll respond – with the help of her owner, Kathy Boero, head of the primary school.
Bell occasionally receives as many as 20 letters a week. Boero takes them home every Friday night; Sunday is the pair’s day for correspondence; and on Monday, replies are taped to students’ lockers.
“So many letters say, ‘I feel better because you’re here’,” Boero says.
Bell is a medium-sized white doodle. She’s not even two years old yet, but the therapy dog in-training has already put in a year at Prairie School.
Dogs like Bell are part of a growing trend. Many hospitals and senior facilities already utilize furry friends for comfort – and now some schools are joining their ranks. In an environment of high-stakes testing and other academic pressures, school sometimes can become an uncomfortable place for kids.
Boero says Bell’s role depends on what students (and staff) in the building need.
“She’s just really here at our school to give comfort. It can be therapy for some people; for others it’s just a companion,” she explains.
Students are able to ask for permission to hang out with Bell during study period. Many do their homework alongside the dog, or read to her. Others just relax and play with Bell – even take her out to the school garden to play keep-away with her soccer ball.
“She will hang out with you if you’re all alone, and she just likes having company,” says tenth grader Grace Burch, who eats lunch with Bell every day. “I like the fact that she is calm and that she understands that not everyone has to be as outgoing. She’s very understanding.”
Bell also plays a more structured role. She's a member of Prairie School’s Compass team – the group of specialists that provide students with extra support.
Dr. Mike Boticki is a member of that team, too – he’s Prairie’s school psychologist. He says he’ll send students to see Bell for a variety of reasons.
“There have been children that may just be struggling with their day, some that kind of live with extreme anxiety, some that were just very new to the school and looking for their first friend,” Boticki explains.
“Kids just want to feel listened to, and I think adults sometimes have a tendency to respond back,” he continues. “Sometimes that’s very, very important. But there’s other times where a child just wants to vent, just wants that cathartic experience. And I think animals – Bell, especially -- does a great job of listening and really being non-judgmental.”
Bell's duties also include visiting classrooms at the request of teachers, to participate in a special activity or provide a friendly face for students struggling with anxiety. Primary school leader Kathy Boero says the dog will sit in the back of the room during class presentations, so students can focus on talking to her, instead of what might seem like a more intimidating large group of peers.
“It’s like, ‘Bell’s here! I can do this!’” Boero smiles. “She’ll give licks and so much positive feedback.”
“I think anytime you read or write or do anything academic, when you connect it with something pleasurable, it becomes a more pleasurable academic activity,” she adds. “What I’m so grateful for is that teachers really see her value. They don’t necessarily see it as a disruption to their schedule, but more value added to the students’ schedule.”
Boero says the important thing is that kids have some sort of outlet for a “mental break” -- especially in an environment where they’re juggling academics, extracurricular commitments, social and home life, and more.
And the staff at Prairie understands that having Bell on the team is a luxury. Not every school has the time or resources for a comfort dog of their own.
But such dogs are increasingly making their way into classrooms around Wisconsin -- including at Wausau East High School and Westside Elementary in Sun Prairie. Several organizations throughout Wisconsin now provide the necessary training, to certify these canine companions.
Have a question about education you'd like Rachel to dig into? Submit below.