Before she begins each school day at North Rockford Middle School, Tanith Frank has something she needs to do: check in with Chillie.
Chillie is an affectionate Labrador retriever, and Tanith finds five minutes petting and talking to her starts her day off right.
“She just is the sweetest little thing and she brings a smile to my face,” said Tanith, an eighth grader who says she sometimes struggles with anxiety. “She helps calm me down and get me through the day. … She just brings me happiness.”
A lot of students get happiness and comfort from Chillie, a trained counseling assistance dog who was brought to North Rockford Middle late last spring with a $5,000 grant from the Rockford Education Foundation. She’s a permanent fixture in counselor Angie Ohlman’s office, a frequent visitor to classrooms and a popular passer-by in hallways, where students gravitate to her like a furry magnet.
Principal Lissa Weidenfeller said Chillie has helped students “de-escalate” from episodes of high anxiety and communicate better. For some, the chance for “Chillie time” has provided an incentive for better attendance and doing homework. She’s also seen Chillie bring together very different students who wouldn’t normally associate.
“They’re able to show more empathy or connectedness, because they feel that empathy with the dog that they haven’t felt in the past with others,” Weidenfeller said. Recalling a gathering of students with disabilities and a serious illness, she added, “They all had their own stories, and they were all coming together and being with the dog. It just gave me goosebumps.”
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Stress Reducers, Attendance Improvers
At North Rockford Middle and other area schools (see related story), educators are finding specially trained dogs help their students cope with stress, focus better on their work and open up emotionally. Children in other local districts including Cedar Springs have enjoyed reading to therapy dogs courtesy of West Michigan Therapy Dogs and Kent District Library.
Researchers say therapy dogs can help students through difficult situations and improve their attendance and academics. They have also been found to help students with autism socialize and feel more at ease. And they can provide badly needed comfort to traumatized students: Therapy dogs were on hand to welcome students back to Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the 2018 massacre there.
‘Dogs sense who you are. They don’t judge what you look like.’ — Rockford school counselor Angie Ohlman
At North Rockford Middle, Weidenfeller said she’s been amazed by the impact Chillie has made since the Board of Education approved her purchase last spring.
“I’ve been in education for 25 years,” Weidenfeller said. “It’s been one of the most powerful interventions I’ve seen to make a social-emotional difference for kids.”
Specially Trained for Students
A former service dog with Paws with a Cause, Chillie was purchased from Interquest Detection Canines. Although the agency specializes in providing drug-detection dogs, Michigan franchise owner Kim Heys began training dogs for school counseling work after seeing their positive impact, said Ohlman, the North Rockford Middle counselor and Chillie’s handler.
Chillie was brought to North Rockford Middle specifically to assist with counseling and intervention, Weidenfeller said, emphasizing the dog is specially trained to work with students in schools.
“Having an extensively trained canine that was bred for service was a critical aspect for our program, and we feel is one of the keys to the success we’ve seen so far,” Weidenfeller said.
To protect students with allergies, Chillie is not allowed in the cafeteria, health office or classrooms with allergic children. To protect Chillie from overstimulation, Ohlman gives her power naps and takes her on breaks outside. Students must ask permission to pet her.
During counseling sessions, Ohlman has seen how petting her helps calm students and quiet their spinning thoughts.
“That repetitive petting somehow gets them to be able to open up more and speak about things they’re struggling with,” Ohlman said.
Chillie also is used with the school’s students with autism, cognitive impairments and in general classrooms, where students pet her while working on math or history. And at an age when students frequently battle insecurity, Chillie offers unconditional love.
“Dogs sense who you are. They don’t judge what you look like,” Ohlman said. “Chillie sees past that, and gives that love.”