Rockford — The population at Rockford High School has grown by four paws.
The Rockford Education Foundation recently welcomed Gunner the golden retriever to the high school counseling program as a counseling dog. Gunner’s handler, Rachel Kreuze, is a guidance counselor at the school.
“We know that counseling dog programs have an immediate impact on both students and adults by quickly boosting morale and mental wellbeing, along with promoting a positive school culture and climate,” said Mindy Duba, executive director of Special Services. “Counseling dogs can slow down a body’s response to anger and stress and help students remain in control of their emotions and behavior.
“Especially right now, we’re seeing a rise in mental health concerns in our students and our staff … and so our focus is on implementing programs that will help us improve their mental wellbeing.”
Kreuze, who serves approximately one-fifth of RHS students, plans to make Gunner as available to all students as possible. She hopes to make classroom visits during independent work time, and is already enjoying the mornings where she and Gunner welcome students as they arrive at school.
“We often have students who are struggling with starting the school day, whether they had a rough morning or they have a lot of anxiety being at school,” Kreuze said. “Seeing Gunner, being able to say hi to him and pet him, will be helpful during that time.”
Senior Erika Roodvoets said Gunner will also be an asset to RHS’ peer listeners program. This student-led mental health advocacy group allows students to talk with trained peers about an issue they are having if they don’t feel comfortable speaking with a guidance counselor.
“I already know that lots of people want to see Gunner, so that’s going to bring them to the counseling office and that’s where the peer listeners’ home is as well,” said Erika, who is a peer listener and advocate. “Hopefully that will get some more students to be open to doing an encounter or letting us advocate for them. And we’ll bring Gunner along for those encounters, to make it more comfortable to talk about stuff they don’t normally talk about.”
Gunner is the second counseling dog to work at RPS, joining Chillie the Labrador, who’s in her third year at North Rockford Middle School. Superintendent Michael Shibler said his goal is to eventually have a counseling dog at work in all 13 schools.