New Brunswick school support dog aims to break down barriers and alleviate student stress

Timber Wilson, Brunswick Junior High School student, Desi the Black Lab and Kerry Wolongevicz, School Resources Manager. C. Thacher Carter / The Times Record.

When Desi – Brunswick Junior High School’s new support dog – walked out Friday morning during recess, students of all levels rushed to pet her.

“I see her almost every day,” said Timber Wilson, 14, an eighth grader at the school. “Sometimes when I walk into the office, or walk past, there will be kids petting her, and they’ll just have the happiest, purest smiles on their faces.”

Desi, a 3-year-old black lab, was introduced to college in mid-September to help relieve stress. Most of the time, Desi is stationed at the office with her teacher, School Resource Officer Det. Kerry Wolongevicz. Wilson said, at first, that she would go see the dog if she’s having a hard day, but now the bond has developed and Desi will recognize her and greet her as she walks through the hallways.

“She has really helped me this year to break a lot of barriers with the students, as long as they feel comfortable with me,” Wolongevicz said.

The initiative to place Desi in college was a collaboration between Brunswick School and the local police department. According to Wolongevicz, Desi went through extensive obedience and socialization training before being introduced to students.

Today, Desi is at school almost every day of the week, and students are welcome to come to Wolongevicz’s office during the study room or lunch to play with the puppy. Additionally, if a student acts at school, Desi will be brought to class frequently to help calm the students.

While Desi is trained in police duties – such as tracking, looking for evidence, and detecting drugs – her role at school is entirely separate from police work, Wolongevicz said.

“At school, she’s just there to be everyone’s friend,” added Wolongevicz, noting that Desi naturally distinguishes between the two roles in part because of a vest that is worn during work. from police.

Shelley Prophett, who taught functional life skills to students with the greatest support needs at Brunswick Junior High School for six years, said Desi was a comfortable, non-judgmental figure for her students.

“There were a few times where we had students who were really, really emotionally deregulated, some screaming and screaming and maybe throwing stuff,” Prophett said. “Desi is coming, and it’s pretty instant. In the first three to five minutes, children are noticeably calmer, you can see their bodies relax, they can ask to lie down with her or give her a hug. It’s almost as if she instinctively knows which children in the class are having difficulty. “

Brunswick Junior High School’s new service dog Desi. C. Thacher Carter / The time record

In addition, Prophett said, there are students she knows who have had negative associations with the police due to family life situations, and Desi served as a bridge for these students to have more interactions with them. law enforcement.

“A lot of it comes down to this unconditional respect and love that these people receive from animals,” said Augusta O’Reilly, registered clinical social worker and therapist at Maine Behavioral Healthcare, based in Biddeford.

O’Reilly, who is also board certified in veterinary social work, said York High School is the only other school department in Maine she knows of to have used a support dog – although therapy and comfort animals are becoming also increasingly popular on college campuses.

In addition to students, O’Reilly said veterans, people with autism spectrum disorders, and the elderly are common customers for “therapy dogs” – a title typically for dogs that are built into a clinic. treatment plan.

O’Reilly said she hasn’t come across an animal taking on mixed services like policing and support work, but she said the Brunswick program could be effective as long as it’s done right.

The vest as a tool to distinguish when Desi is doing police work, O’Reilly said, is compatible with service dogs who will wear one to signal that they are “on time.” She agreed that Desi could serve as an effective bridge to form positive relationships between authority figures and college kids.

According to Pawesome Advice, an online resource that collects expert advice and data for pet owners, emotional support animals have gained “incredible popularity” over the past decade, and now they are. over 65,000 in the United States. About 74% of pet owners reported improved mental health from their pets, according to the same website.

Brunswick Junior High School’s new service dog Desi. C. Thacher Carter / The time record

Overall, the dog added a positive layer to the building, according to Laurie Catanese, principal of Brunswick Junior High School, and the fact that Desi aligns with the school’s focus on the social and emotional learning.

Procedures and protocols were developed earlier in the school year to help guide Desi’s interaction with students, added Catanese.

“College students often develop skills around independence, they develop skills around completing homework, they develop skills around peer conflict,” Catanese said. “I think what Desi does is just bring core strength to a lot of students.”

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