“Sign up now!” echoed through the classrooms on Tuesday Oct. 2 when Renee Ferrell, Director of School Counseling, posted a Schoology message offering a link to a therapy dog session for students feeling stressed. The session had a limit space of ten students and filled up within minutes.
Starting at 4:15 on Thursday Oct. 4, the ten students met for a 45-minute session. The star of the show, Gus, is an eight-year-old golden retriever who is so fluffy he may even “have some polar bear in him,” according to his owner Dave Inman, English and Leadership teacher.
“When he walked in, everyone went ‘Ahhhh!’ including myself,” said Morgan Meadowes, school counselor.
Ms. Ferrell and Mr. Inman each had aspirations for a therapy dog club. “When I met [Mr. Inman], he told me he had a therapy dog… and I said ‘let’s do something!’ We got all excited about it,” said Ms. Farrell. However, instead of a club, they have decided to make the therapy sessions more of a program, available to all students.
In the future, the plan is to bring Gus to school about every other week. His next visit will be the week of Oct. 15. “If it gets to the point where a lot of people are interested that are not able to get here then [Mr. Inman] is going to reach out to people he knows to try to get some other therapy dogs involved [during the school day],” said Ms. Ferrell.
The goal is to also increase visits around testing. “I want to see if we can bring multiple dogs in during SOLs and exams at the end of the year. We would need to get it approved,” said Ms. Meadowes.
As for the students, spending time with a therapy dog is “proven to reduce heart rate and reduce stress levels,” said Ms. Meadowes. They can also “provide a lot of calming affects” and “bring you into the moment, like the here and now,” said Ms. Ferrell.
For some, Gus also acts as an incentive to come to school. “They give a positive something to look forward to. I had a student… [who said] ‘I want to come tomorrow; I want to see the dog after school,’ so that is like ensuring that she actually comes to school, which is important,” said Ms. Meadowes.
“One of the things I love about bringing Gus here is that he can be of service to everyone…he’s not just for people who feel overwhelmed or troubled. In a society that attaches some negative labels to people with mental health issues—perhaps even more so among teens—there’s no stigma associated with hanging out with a fluffy dog,” said Mr. Inman.
Gus spent the entirety of the therapy session just “making his way around being fluffy” as the students stood or sat petting him.
“He just really likes affection. When he was a puppy, we would take him to the dog park and he would ignore all the other dogs and just walk around to all the people like ‘you pet me now, you pet me now,’” said Mr. Inman.
In addition to working at Freeman, Gus’ resume includes visiting nursing homes and hospitals like MCV. Schedule permitting, Mr. Inman and Gus try to volunteer a few times a month.
Recently, they coincidentally ran into a man in the hospital who they used to see quite frequently in a nursing home’s memory care unit. Mr. Inman said, “He hadn’t seen Gus for probably a couple of months, and we walked into his room (he didn’t say anything because he is non- verbal) but he started making noise and he was petting Gus. He remembered who Gus was. The nurses said this was the most interactive he had been for the past week he had been there.”
Gus knows the difference between just going on a walk and going to work, as he has a special leash and a little yellow bag that “cues” him into the therapy dog mindset. “He feels proud about being allowed in places other dogs are not,” said Mr. Inman.
Students hanging with Gus.
All photos featured taken by Caitlin McSorley.