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Menlo Park school district's new wellness ambassadors are friendly, furry and four-legged

Five puppies join inaugural therapy dog program to help address growing mental health crisis in American children

The bell rings and classroom doors swing open, unleashing a flood of students into the hallways of Hillview Middle School.

Duke, one of the newest additions to the Menlo Park campus, is also on his way to class. It’s only 11 a.m., but he’s already been to two other district schools, and his day is just beginning. He plows through the halls, gracefully accepting outstretched hands and seemingly unfazed by the thundering stampede of feet and obstacle course of swinging backpacks. Restless and chatty after a morning of state testing, the students smile at Duke as he weaves through the crowd, some pausing to scratch his head or call out hello.

A student pets Duke during an eighth grade science class at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park on May 17, 2023. Photo by Devin Roberts.

In an environment driven by deadlines and assessments, to-do lists and grades, Duke — with his droopy teddy bear-face and shaggy, golden coat — is a welcome sight.

The year-old goldendoodle is one of six dogs newly “employed” by the Menlo Park City School District. Technically certified as social-emotional learning dogs, Duke and his fellow furry colleagues — Millie, Patches, Cali, Sunny and Fiona — comprise the inaugural class of the district’s recently launched PAWZitivity program, operating on all five of the K-8 district's campuses.

8th grade student Avery pets Patches in the library at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park on May 17, 2023. Photo by Devin Roberts.

“Honestly, it’s super emotional and rewarding,” said former Superintendent Erik Burmeister, who championed the program from the beginning. “To see that this spark of an idea has come to reality — it warms my heart.”

PAWZitivity, which appears to be the only program of its kind along the Peninsula, dovetails with an ongoing effort to address a mental health crisis among the nation’s students. In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control reported a significant upsurge in mental health-related emergency visits for children under the age of 18. That same year, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association declared a state of emergency in children’s mental health and called for more funding and resources for treatment and prevention.

PAWZitivity program dog Eclair rests during a 6th grade English class at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park on May 17, 2023. Photo by Devin Roberts.

District Wellness Coordinator Chris Arrington described growing rates of anxiety and suicidal ideation among his own students, existing trends that were only exacerbated by forced social isolation over the last few years, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Mental health was definitely trending in a certain direction,” said Arrington, who also oversees the district dog program. “The pandemic just sped it along a little bit, just opened the floodgate. Because now everyone was trapped in their home, and they no longer had relationships.”

Long in the making, PAWZitivity is now in its early stages. Duke and Millie were introduced to their schools at the end of March, while the other three started a couple of weeks later. Still, Arrington is pleased with what he’s seen so far.

“A stupid dog can make you smile,” he said. “Just being there, being present … Those make a difference.”

Eclair interacts with 6th grade student Sorina during an eighth grade science class at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park on May 17, 2023. Photo by Devin Roberts.

Building a program from scratch

The seed for PAWZitivity was planted more than three years ago, in the form of a burly and doe-eyed chocolate lab named Eclair.

In 2019, Eclair was getting ready for a career change. A trained service dog, she ended up in the hands of a family with kids in the Menlo Park district who wanted to donate their dog’s services to a school. The timing was fortuitous: Burmeister, intrigued by something he’d read about therapy animal programs in school settings, had already been looking into the idea.

“Eclair’s family reached out to us, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I just happen to be researching this issue,’” he recalled.

Launching the pilot with Eclair took more than a year and significant prep work, including changing the board policy on animals in school, getting permission slips signed by parents, and designating a teacher as the dog’s on-campus handler. Then, just a month into Eclair’s tenure, COVID hit, shutting down all in-person operations and putting the test run on indefinite hold. Only in fall 2021, with school back in session, was she able to resume her classroom duties — much to the students’ delight.

Burmeister had already envisioned an expanded program, and early success with Eclair fueled his dream.

“It wasn't until the pandemic where we thought, ‘Gosh, wouldn't it be great if we had a dog available to each campus?’” he recalled.

Through the 2022 Spring Auction, the Menlo-Atherton Park Education Foundation was able to secure a starting sum of just over $120,000, enough money to support five dogs for the next few years, including supplies, training and insurance. (The dogs themselves cost $10,000 each.)

That’s when Arrington first got involved. “(The superintendent) said, ‘Okay, this is what we want to do. I have the money — go figure it out,’” said Arrington, who runs the program with Treadway. “I had to figure out, where do you find dogs?”

Word of mouth led them to 4 Pawz Strong, a Michigan-based organization that trains and supports social-emotional learning dogs for educational settings. 4 Pawz has placed over 100 dogs in Michigan schools, but MPCSD was its first out-of-state client.

Last year, the California-bound puppies underwent intensive training, earning a variety of certificates through the American Kennel Club, and making regular visits to hospitals and schools. By the end of six months, all the dogs could reliably obey basic commands, behave politely around strangers and other animals, and stay cool in chaotic or distracting situations.

Meanwhile, Arrington and his advisory team worked out the details of the program at home. They put out a call for staff members interested in hosting one of the dogs and vetted a handful of interested applicants before selecting the final six, himself included, who underwent their own training.

Finally, two months ago, the puppies flew halfway across the country to meet their new families and start their new campus jobs. Though the transition is going well, Arrington, who independently adopted and paid for Duke, is mindful that humans and dogs alike are still going through an adjustment period.

“People think they came, and they're, like, ready to go! No — they're still puppies,” he said. “They're still learning. They're still figuring this out.”

Laughing, he added: “It's like having a newborn again.”

Duke waits in a classroom for students to arrive at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park on May 17, 2023. Photo by Devin Roberts.

A day in the life

The dogs are, in many ways, like any other district employee.

Each morning, Monday through Friday, they commute to one of the district’s five campuses where they bounce from classroom to classroom, according to a predetermined schedule. (Duke floats between different campuses with Arrington.) Though the dogs live full-time with their host families, other trained staff members and even students assist with the day-to-day maintenance and care. The idea is to get the dogs moving around campus to give as many kids as possible the opportunity to interact with them.

The dogs’ responsibilities, while limited, are by no means small: They’re expected to make the rounds of their assigned classrooms, greeting and sitting with the students, while refraining from any unseemly behavior, like barking, licking or jumping — in other words, acting like puppies.

But the line between work and play is carefully maintained. The dogs know that once they’re strapped into their red service vests, it’s time to work.

On Thursday morning, after stopping by Encinal and Laurel schools, Duke rides with Arrington over to Hillview. The third period bell rings, and he’s off to eighth grade science, trotting calmly by Arrington’s side through the shouting throngs of middle schoolers. He’s greeted warmly by teacher Susan Arrington, who’s Chris Arrington’s wife and, by extension, Duke’s mom. But he doesn’t jump or lick her face — he’s still in his vest after all.

Teacher Jacky Schlegel Vaggione and PAWZitivity program dog Eclair share a moment at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park on May 17, 2023. Photo by Devin Roberts.

Duke stands patiently by the door as the class streams in, nearly every student bending down to give him an affectionate rub. It’s obvious: Everyone loves Duke.

“Hi Dukes Dukey,” one student coos.

As Susan Arrington collects homework and launches into a discussion about the opioid epidemic, Duke weaves through the desks, moving slowly from one outstretched hand to the next. Some students wave or call him over, others hardly glance as he passes. He lingers for a minute or two, before wandering off again.

She described Duke’s uncanny ability to seek out the students who could most benefit from some puppy love.

“I find that he sits under their desk,” she said. “And then I'll be like, ‘I think you need it!’”

Chris Arrington said he's observed a similar experience among the students he sees in his role as school psychologist.

“Some of my therapy kids want nothing to do with the dog. The dog’s in the room, but they're not even paying attention,” he said. “Others are burying their heads in the dog, and I think I've heard things that they've never told me.”

There are rules, of course. The dogs aren’t allowed to play while they’re working — no fetch or tug-of-war. And the students know not to get too distracted or they risk having the dogs removed. Arrington has also been proactive about reaching out to parents whose kids have dog allergies or phobias.

So far, however, the issues have been minimal, and the reception has been “overly positive,” Arrington said. Already he’s started hearing from other districts along the Peninsula curious about bringing a similar program to their own schools.

Thursday is a busy day for dogs at Hillview: On the other side of campus, Patches meanders around the library, while Eclair lounges in the corner of a sixth grade English class.

Duke greets students as they enter the classroom at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park on May 17, 2023. Photo by Devin Roberts.

The students have nothing but good things to say about their canine companions. One described the comfort of confiding in a dog: “They don’t talk, they’re just listening,” she said.

“If we’re stressed about a test, they’re there so we can take a break and go pet them,” another sixth grader chimed in.

For his part, Arrington hopes the program will continue long into the future, with many more cycles of dogs down the line. Still, he isn’t one to overstate their abilities.

“Schools, businesses can be incredibly sterile,” he said matter-of-factly. “It's not, like, a miracle the dog is here. They're just adding a little bit of humanity to school.”

Burmeister agreed.

“Do I believe it’s a panacea?” he asked. “No. But I do believe it’s one really helpful tool in a series of tools that help students regulate their emotions and bring a greater sense of wellness, positivity, and happiness to the school environment.”

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