Starting out at a new school can be a challenge, but for two new members of the Mahtomedi Middle School community, they give new meaning to the phrase “every dog has a day.”
On the first day, Piper and Riley walked down the locker hallway, they weren’t sure of the
new friends they were about to meet, but their tails were wagging as the students’ voices grew louder. The couple took the elevator to the ground floor and when the doors opened, cheers from students who were surprised to see the two golden retrievers at school, greeted them as they were starting their first day as therapy dogs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged students in myriad ways, and the importance of connecting and building relationships coming out of a time of loneliness and loneliness has been a key priority for public schools in Mahtomedi. The therapy dog program is a tool for the school to support student joy, engagement and well-being.
“At Mahtomedi Middle School, we strive to help our students be engaged, self-reliant, and empathetic,” said principal Jason Miller. “This year the college is focused on providing our students with the tools and skills they need to succeed based on what they have been through during the pandemic. The therapy dog program helps promote social and academic benefits by inspiring laughter and fun, enhancing class and class connections, and fostering positive student interactions.
Piper and Riley are certified by Therapy Dogs International and began their therapy work by visiting a family member in the St. Andrew’s Village senior community. Their certified owner and manager is Julie Brown, an eighth-grade geography teacher at Mahtomedi Middle School. Brown approached Miller and Superintendent Barb Duffrin with the idea of bringing therapy dogs to the college, and they worked in partnership to launch the program.
At this time, the therapy dogs visit the school twice a week. Students can visit Piper and Riley before or after school, at the school guidance office and, for students who are in Brown’s class, while they are studying world geography. Brown shared this about the interaction she sees: “Piper and Riley have brought a new spark of excitement to the school. For some students, dogs elicit smiles, and for others, they spark conversations and connections with their personal pets.
The therapy dog program has also served as a tool for school counselors who may need an additional resource for students who have welfare, academic or behavioral issues. Brown works with the school’s guidance office to schedule private time for the students with Piper and Riley. Paraprofessionals who work directly to support students also regularly visit or bring in students during daily Zephyr time (a time of day with the student’s teacher advisor during which students can focus on academic needs as well as on wellness activities).
When Piper and Riley leave school, they are exhausted and spend their evening lounging at home looking at the lake, perhaps dreaming of the multitude of students they have befriended and cuddled up with. and hugs they received at school. While they are certainly lucky dogs, the students also feel particularly lucky for the opportunity and grateful for the program.
The program has been running for several weeks now, and Miller shared an update on the progress: “It’s been going really well. We have supportive families and community members who want our students to have all the tools they need to succeed. The therapy dog program is a great way to help our students bond and is a unique wellness tool that we are proud to have at Mahtomedi Middle School.
Alice Seuffert is communications coordinator for Mahtomedi Public Schools.