Can you feel it? Winter break is fastly approaching. For many, this break is a time of a much needed and well-deserved rest. For others, winter break, like the several other breaks from school, is a time that causes stress because school is the safest home they know. The differences between these two feelings remind us of the importance of cultivating the social and emotional well-being in addition to fostering academic growth in public education.
In addition to the social and emotional well-being of students, the New York State Department of Education (NYSED) has also recognized the importance of mental health education. Proposed in January of 2018, the continuum of well-being for mental health literacy was formally adopted by the Board of Regents in May of 2018. The NYSED Mental Health webpage nicely reminds us “research has shown that the quality of the school climate may be the single most predictive factor in any school’s capacity to promote student achievement. When young people are educated about mental health, the likelihood increases they will be able to effectively recognize signs and symptoms in themselves and others and will know where to turn for help. Health education that respects the importance of mental health, as well as the challenges of mental illness, will help young people and their families and communities feel more comfortable seeking help, improve academic performance and, most importantly, even save lives.” Some school districts have gotten creative in their approach to positively improve their culture and climate.
I recently walked into Cuba-Rushford Central School’s Middle/High School building and was delighted to see Lupo, pictured above, a 15-week old, male Bouvier des Flandres; the Bouvier des Flandres breed is loyal, gentle, and hypoallergenic, typically living 10 to 12 years growing upwards of 100 pounds. As I watched Lupo, he brought smiles to nearly all who passed him by, and he received welcoming embraces from both students and adults. Naturally, like most, I needed to learn more about Lupo’s role at CRCS.
Whose dog is Lupo? Lupo belongs to Chris Cappelletti, and is, ultimately, his responsibility throughout the day. However, Chris let me know that both getting Lupo into CRCS and taking care of him throughout the day wouldn’t be possible without the encouragement and assistance of the CRCS faculty and administration, particularly Nicole Williams and Sally Kus.
Why is Lupo at CRCS? Several events took place that allowed for Lupo to be welcomed at CRCS. After many weeks of researching the benefits of a therapy dog, the idea was presented to CRCS superintendent, Carlos Gildemeister. Then, after discussing the idea and the research, Carlos gave his full support knowing that the benefits of a therapy dog far outweigh the costs.
Who takes care of Lupo at night? Lupo belongs to Chris. This means that Chris is responsible for taking care of Lupo before and after school. Furthermore, Chris is responsible for having Lupo trained as a therapy dog; this means Lupo needs to pass a temperament test, complete obedience school, and undergo therapy dog training, each with an associated fee. The big goal for Lupo, once he completes all of his training, is for him to pass the American Kennel Club (AKC) Therapy Dog Test.
Has Lupo made an impact in his first 15 weeks at CRCS? “I’ve seen a huge difference!” Chris told me. “I’ve seen more smiling faces, more communication with children and adults, and increased empathy. Students worry if Lupo has eaten enough, and regularly ask to take him on walks so Lupo can go to the bathroom outside.” Nicole added “that socially he has created a bridge for students that normally would not hang out or speak to each other. For instance, two girls in particular that do not hang out, quickly and without any awkwardness, started talking while they were petting Lupo.”
What else do I need to know if I wanted get a therapy dog in my school district? In short, you need research, support, and commitment; research to identify which type of dog will be the suitable, support from administration and the dog’s owner, and a commitment both financially and mentally to the lifestyle of raising a therapy dog.
Prior to researching which type of dog would be purchased, Chris, Nicole, and Sally explored what the research showed regarding the benefits of having a therapy dog. Then, with a plan and the research to support it, Chris, Nicole and Sally received approval from their administration after several discussions. Lastly, perhaps the most challenging aspect of owning a therapy dog, each member of this small team must be committed to not only caring for this support animal, but they must also be committed to doing so consistently.
Do the benefits outweigh the costs? For the sake of clarity, there are several costs associated with owning a therapy dog. Not only does someone need to pay for the dog itself, its food, shelter, training, etc., but there are also physical and emotional costs such as training the animal early in the morning and throughout the day until the evening hours, caring for the animal in addition to normal expectations at home and at work, and determining whether the animal truly is having a meaningful impact.
For some, these costs constitute burdens that are far too great, and for others the benefits far outweigh the costs. Based on the few days I have seen Lupo in action, I would argue he his performing his duties well. Based on the several weeks Lupo has been at CRCS, Lupo’s caretakers would also argue that Lupo is worth the cost. More time may be required for a concrete measure of Lupo’s impact, but perhaps time has already shown just how valuable this dog can be.
By: Mark Beckwith, CA BOCES Professional Development