Experience Magazine 2022

Therapy Dog Program

Building Community and Connection
On any given day, Upper School students at The Bush School will get out of class and climb  the stairs in Gracemont to the counseling floor. It is true that students make their way to the third floor of Gracemont seeking guidance and support from the human counselors—, and it is also true that they head upstairs for support and comfort from the other two members of the Upper School counseling team: Starsky and Yoshi. Whether it is a quick hello or a longer stay, seeing Starsky or Yoshi is sure to make the day go better. These canine companions bring their unconditional love to the larger community daily, and after eight years of having dogs on campus, students, faculty, and staff know they are better for it.

The Bush School counseling program welcomed the first therapy dog in 2015 with Vikki, a loveable golden retriever who started coming to campus with Middle School Counselor Gayle Gingold. Today there are three dogs on the Bush counseling team who are beloved members of the community for students, faculty, and staff from all divisions. 

The benefits of dogs in the school community are plentiful. They are a calming presence and a kind and approachable friend for students, no matter what kind of day a student is having. Research has also shown that therapy dogs in schools increase students’ self-esteem and self-confidence, build empathy, offer important socialization benefits, and provide physiological benefits such as lowering heart rate and blood pressure. 

Bush’s focus on student and faculty wellness and mental health, combined with the personal and institutional challenges of the pandemic, have made the counselors’ roles, and by extension the dogs’, even more important. Upper School Counselors Maria Mathiesen and John Ganz both appreciate how the dogs draw students in and help them feel comfortable around the counseling offices. Maria explained that having the dogs as part of students’ normal routines means that “when something happens and they do need to talk to a counselor, there’s no fear because they’ve already done it lots of times.” 

For John, it’s clear that the dogs make the counselors more accessible to students who might need to process something in their lives. Much like a fidget toy to occupy one’s hands while processing strong emotions or difficult topics, “kids will come in and have a hand on the dog. Just having a dog in the room, it’s a calming thing,” he said. 

The benefits extend to the faculty and staff on campus as well. Starsky and Yoshi spend time in faculty meetings on leash, and teachers will also request that the dogs visit their classrooms from time to time. “I have teachers, too, who specifically ask, ‘Will you bring one of the dogs today? We’re covering this topic, and it’s kind of intense. It might be nice to have some dog energy in the room,’” shared Maria. For Quinn C. ’22, these unexpected classroom visits from the dogs are a favorite part of the program. “It’s always a nice little surprise when John or Maria come into a classroom with them, and all the students get to take a break and play!” said Quinn. 

Quinn is a peer mentor with the Student Wellness Center, a group of five juniors and five seniors who are trained to provide peer counseling support to classmates. The Student Wellness Center offers an additional layer of support for students in the Upper School, working in concert with the full counseling team. These student leaders recognize the value of the therapy dog program and the presence of Starsky and Yoshi on campus. Aaron M. ’22 reflected, “I really enjoy how unique it is to have them on campus; I usually end up leaving with a smile after I see the dogs.”

Maria and John agree that the different personalities of Yoshi and Starsky allow each of them to play different roles on campus and offer different types of support to students. Maria reflected that it has been especially nice to overlap on campus the past two years, because “they fit in a way that I think more kids get exposure to the kind of dog love that they’re comfortable with.”

Some students want a dog in their lap (said Maria, “that would be Yoshi”), and other students want a dog nearby, sitting at their feet or close enough to put a hand on. Even students who are not as comfortable around dogs themselves, like Ari M. ’23, another member of the Student Wellness Center who admits to having a “slight fear of dogs,” see the joy and comfort the dogs bring to the student body. “Throughout the day, I see students stopping by John and Maria’s offices to cuddle with the dogs to take a mental break from the fast-paced nature of school life. I think [Starsky and Yoshi] bring levity and warmth to our school, even if I might prefer having therapy cats instead,” laughed Ari. 

As student wellness and mental health continues to be a top priority for Bush, the therapy and facility dog program remains a unique and important piece of the multi-layered support system. Vikki, Starsky, Yoshi, and Kismet have all made an indelible impact on the Bush community and brought smiles, cuddles, and comfort to many. For John, this is proof enough of the positive outcomes of the program. “Kids choose to spend their time and come up and just sit and be with [the dogs]…often in groups, and I just love that. That's exactly why I wanted to have a dog in school.”
 
Meet Kismet (and her big sister Sofie): 3 years old, golden retriever mix, facility dog in training

Kismet joined Middle School Counselor Gayle Gingold in March 2021 and is undergoing training to become a social-therapy dog and ultimately a facility dog. During the pandemic, Kismet was flown out of a rescue facility in China on one of the few flights that could leave before new lockdown restrictions paused operations. Gayle has worked with two facility dogs previously, including Vikki at The Bush School, and she is taking a new approach with Kismet’s training. For Kismet and Gayle, the training philosophy and practices are rooted in consent and animal welfare. Currently Kismet is growing her skills and patiently “babysitting”
 
Sofie, a 5-year-old Maltipoo who joined Gayle and Kismet’s pack in October 2022.

Meet Starsky and Yoshi

Meet Starsky: 6 years old, golden retriever, certified facility dog
Favorite Bush place to visit: Bush Methow Campus in Mazama, Washington
Three words to describe Starsky: strong-willed, verbal, and calm
Interests: fetching sticks, especially in water; playing with stuffed toys; working with students; and getting all the pets
Background: Upper School Counselor John Ganz and Starsky were connected through Canine Companions for Independence, a national agency that works to pair service dogs with people with disabilities. Starsky had a physical defect in his elbow that prevented him from continuing in the program to be a service dog, but he was a perfect fit for John and what he was looking for in formalizing the therapy dog program at Bush. Starsky and John completed a six-month facility dog training program, and after getting their certification in August 2018, Starsky started on campus that fall. 

Meet Yoshi: 6 years old, Labrador retriever mix, certified therapy dog
Favorite Bush place to visit: Lower School Counselor Leah Brown’s office and Middle School Counselor Gayle Gingold’s offices, because there are lots of toys and little kids
Three words to describe Yoshi: loving, playful, present
Interests: chasing, catching, and retrieving balls; swimming; and snuggling
Background: Maria and her family adopted Yoshi the same year she applied to work at Bush. At the time, they were looking for a family dog with a temperament that was good around kids. After beginning at Bush, Maria said “the wheels started spinning,” and she began training Yoshi to be a therapy dog after her first year at the school. Her training involved volunteer work in care facilities for elders and adults with developmental disabilities. Through this work, Yoshi displayed a knack for individual connection and understanding how to connect with a person in distress.
The Bush School is an independent, coeducational day school located in Seattle, WA enrolling 710 students in grades K–12. The mission of The Bush School is to spark in students of diverse backgrounds and talents a passion for learning, accomplishment, and contribution to their communities.

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