Therapy dog to make middle school life easier

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published September 7, 2016

 Lightning listens to Principal Pat Donohue give him a command.

Lightning listens to Principal Pat Donohue give him a command.

Photo by Kristyne E. Demske

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — Lightning has struck Kennedy Middle School.

But don’t worry, there’s no damage.

Lightning is a 7-year-old black labrador and Bernese mountain dog mixed-breed canine that is the new face of the middle school — its therapy dog. 

Principal Pat Donohue and his son attended the Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Nebraska, this summer, and Donohue said he was struck by the images on the big screen of swimming stars Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps interacting with a therapy dog in between races. Then, he said, he ran into the dog’s owner, a middle school science teacher who said she brings her dog to class a few days a week.

Donohue said the teacher explained that they had seen a huge difference in the students since they began using the dog, with reductions in anxiety levels.

When Donohue returned to Michigan, he began investigating what it would take for a dog to be certified as a therapy dog and discovered that his dog, Lightning, had what it takes. He has been obedience trained, is up-to-date on shots and was certified by his veterinarian that he has a good temperament, all qualifications for being a school therapy dog. 

“What we see at the middle school (is that) students come down to talk ... they’re having to, for the first time in their lives, be responsible for themselves, (and it) causes anxiety,” Donohue said. 

This school year, Lightning will be available to students and staff a few times per week if they need reassurance while talking to a principal or counselor, if they need a hug to calm down, and also as a resource for students to practice reading to someone who will not judge their grammar or pronunciation. Donohue said he’s hoping that, in that case, students’ self-esteem will be boosted by the non-judgmental dog.

The week before school began, Lightning was getting acclimated to the school’s halls and meeting students as they came in for orientation and to pick up their schedules. During sixth-grade orientation, Donohue said that a few students were getting stressed out trying to open their lockers. The dog, he said, came and sat beside them to be a calm presence and reassure them.

Lightning will be at the school a few times per week and will be offered to any of the 850 students if they seem to need him. If they don’t like dogs or are allergic, that’s fine too, Donohue said. The dog won’t be brought out to them.

Even staff and teachers have access to the dog if they need to decompress, he said.

“Everyone has an off day. So far, it’s been really good,” he said Aug. 29.

The therapy dog is just one of the changes at Kennedy Middle School since an eighth-grader attempted suicide at the end of the last school year. The school is also implementing a Challenge Day program and the Upstander program. 

Challenge Day, which will be held at the middle school and Lake Shore High School Sept. 20-22, has the mission of providing youth and their communities with experiential workshops and programs that celebrate diversity, truth and full expression. The Upstander program includes workshops conducted throughout the year to develop leadership abilities, critical thinking skills and training in methods of effectively intervening in bullying situations.

“We take our student population and really support them in how to become leaders, so as they see things that are going to happen in any school, they stand up for those who may not be able to stand up for themselves,” Lake Shore Superintendent Joe DiPonio said. 

Donohue said the attempted suicide brought to light the fact that they have to continue to “search for even more ways to reach our students, because we can’t fix what we don’t know.”

“It’s more ways to reach students and make sure they know we’re available to talk.”

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