Therapy dogs, and their handlers, wait to receive each dog’s official school employee nametag.

Therapy dogs, and their handlers, wait to receive each dog’s official school employee nametag.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Four-legged employees welcomed to Novi schools

District kicks off ‘Novi 4 All’ therapy dog program

By: Jonathan Shead | Novi Note | Published September 8, 2021

 St. Bernard and Great Dane mix Daisy has a Novi Community School District employee nametag to wear this year.

St. Bernard and Great Dane mix Daisy has a Novi Community School District employee nametag to wear this year.

Photo by Deb Jacques

 Novi Community School District Director of Special Education Shailee Patel shakes Hudson’s paw. Hudson is accompanied by his handler, and third-grade teacher in the district, Justin Haas.

Novi Community School District Director of Special Education Shailee Patel shakes Hudson’s paw. Hudson is accompanied by his handler, and third-grade teacher in the district, Justin Haas.

Photo by Deb Jacques

 Novi Middle School Special Education Teacher Rebecca Middleton smiles with her dog, Bosa, as he holds a tennis ball in his mouth.

Novi Middle School Special Education Teacher Rebecca Middleton smiles with her dog, Bosa, as he holds a tennis ball in his mouth.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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NOVI — Students at eight of the Novi Community School District’s buildings will now have a new four-legged, furry emotional support friend for the 2021-22 school year.

Funded by Novi Educational Foundation dollars, eight trained therapy dogs started the new school year Sept. 7 — after press time — as social-emotional support for students and staff members. Training for the dogs, the only expense for the program, cost $30,000 total.

“Our goal is for the whole building to be able to feel supported by having a therapy dog, whether you’re general education (or) special education, to support the social-emotional well-being or their learning,” Novi Community School District Director of Special Education Shailee Patel said. “There’s so much anxiety for so many of the kids who haven’t been in the building since March 13 (2020). It’s been over a year and a half, and I think during the pandemic, a lot of people went out and got dogs. It was how they got through the pandemic themselves, so I thought it would be great to carry this over.”

The program, which was organized by Patel’s department, came to fruition after Novi Middle School special education teacher Rebecca Middleton got her silver Labrador retriever, Bosa, as an emotional support animal.

“The pandemic was really hard for a lot of people. I know with my mental health, I have panic attacks, so during the pandemic, I trained him to respond to my panic attacks and nudge my face and give pressure,” she said. “When I thought about all the things Bosa has done for me, I wanted to be able to share that with students, too.”

Alongside Bosa, mixed-breed Labrador Daisy, corgi Lacey, border collie mix Otis, bernedoodle Ruthie, whoodle Hudson, St. Bernard and Great Dane mix Daisy, and bernedoodle Blazer all received their 2021-22 staff ID badges and a warm welcome from Superintendent Steve Matthews at a staff meeting Aug. 30.

All eight therapy dogs are owned by district staff members. The dogs will be with their handlers during the school day and will be working in their respective schools at least three to four school days a week.

While the therapy dogs will be available for all students and staff, Patel said her department plans to use the dogs for some students’ reintegration plans.

“We’re hoping that the dogs can be part of that process. Dogs bring a very calming, soothing demeanor to people, so our hope is that will support them to not feel so anxious with adults,” she said.

Deerfield and Orchard Hills elementary schools are the two schools currently not provided with a therapy dog; however, the goal is to supply a therapy dog in all 10 buildings, Patel said.

“We have two buildings that we haven’t found anybody to take this on, but as soon as we do this fall, we’ll reach out to (Michigan Dog Training) and get the dogs trained, as well,” she said.

Michigan Dog Training CEO and dog behaviorist Michael Burke, who trained the district’s therapy dogs, said he knows from personal experience the help that service dogs can give to students, because he was one of them.

“When I was a kid, I couldn’t hear language for four years of my life. They thought I was developmentally disabled. Come to find out, I just had allergies, and my ears were blocked,” Burke said, adding that getting a dog helped him open up, communicate better and gain confidence.

The eight dogs went through 24 private training lessons hosted at Burke’s facility, throughout the Novi community and in the school buildings. While only therapy dogs, Burke trained them as service dogs because they would be working in a school setting.

“We really worked on advanced obedience with the dogs, and then also thinking about the classroom. One of the things we also worked a lot on was place,” he said. “If (the teachers are) teaching a class, and say they don’t want the dog interacting with the kids at that moment, because of instruction, then the dog can stay in place and then, other times, release the dog to interact with the kids.”

Exposing the dogs to a lot of distractions, as well as a myriad of mobility devices that students may use, were two other important focuses of the dogs’ training.

“We also taught the dogs some tricks, so then also if there’s a child who may be interested in dogs or dog training, the handler can help them, and that will empower the children, being able to communicate with the dog in that way,” Burke said.

It’s still undetermined if the district may at some point increase the number of therapy dogs in each building, Patel said.

“Let me see how this goes first. We have a lot of new initiatives going on everywhere, so let’s see how this goes and we’ll see what happens,” she added.

Bosa isn’t looking that far ahead yet. He’s just excited to be going to work with his friends.

“This morning, I said (to him), ‘Do you want to go to school?’ and he ran to the door. He loves it — loves the kids and seeing his friends,” Middleton said. “He just loves to be around people, play and snuggle. I think he’s going to be working for a long time.”

For more information, visit novi.k12.mi.us.

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