Students and school staff members throughout Forsyth County felt devastated when the pandemic forced schools to close in the spring, and as they started to open back up again at the start of this year, many were unsure of what to expect.
As students ventured back onto campus at Lambert High School, they were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by some new four-legged friends.
Assistant Principal Dr. Ashley Johnessee worked with teachers and district leaders over the summer and through the year to begin the school’s therapy dog program, bringing four dogs to campus to help students and staff during what has been an unusually stressful year.
“Our kids deserve for us to look for every opportunity we can to support them,” Johnessee said. “And in a year that has been so extremely stressful for our students, staff and community, these little, four-legged lovebugs are just awesome. And they make a really big difference to a lot of people on a daily basis.”
Johnessee said that before starting to get their own therapy dogs at Lambert this year, they would have therapy dogs from local organizations come to campus on certain days to interact with students.
She said they started bringing in their first dogs about five to six years ago when a teacher on campus mentioned that her mom was a puppy raiser at Canine Assistants, which works to train and raise service animals. The school partnered with them, and they started to bring dogs to campus during the students’ lunch period so that they could see them in the hallways as they walked by.
After a few months, Johnessee said that one of their teachers wanted to see how the dogs were impacting students as they got to see them in the middle of the day, so they had decided to do a small research study. They required students to take a small survey, asking them to rate their stress levels before and after seeing the pups.
Before seeing them, students’ stress levels were an average of seven, and as kids left from seeing the dogs, that average stress level went down to four.
“So we thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty impactful for 15 minutes to see a puppy,’” Johnessee said. After that, the school ended up partnering with Humane Hearts Pet Therapy, an extension of the Humane Society of Forsyth County, to start having handlers come to campus with their dogs whenever they could find time.
By the end of last year, Mary Nicoletti, a teacher on campus who works with one of the specialized education classrooms, showed an interest in bringing a permanent on-campus therapy dog to help with the students in her class.
“Lucky for us, there is precedent in the district,” Johnessee said. “There are counselors who bring their dogs to campuses all over and do a lot of things to support kids. And I so I just said, let’s see what would happen.”
Nicoletti had no clue of where to start the process, so Johnessee suggested reaching out to Scot Rucker, the founder of Rucker Dog Training in Cumming. After reaching out, in what Johnessee described as an act of fate, Rucker said that he already had the perfect dog for them.
He had a 7-month-old black lab who had failed out of duck training school. They wanted to put the dog inside of a school, but they didn’t know how to start the process. He offered to partner with the school and donate the dog and its basic training for the students.
“Well, you can imagine we were just deeply moved by that generosity,” Johnessee said. “But more so, we were really excited that we came back from winter break, and Duck was our newest staff member.”
As the last half of the school year began in January, Johnessee said that students “flocked” to Duck. Everyone called him by name, some students went out of their way in the mornings or during lunch to see him and students and staff even started calling him Mayor Duck. He quickly became a beloved part of the students’ school day.
Since Duck served one classroom of students, he was not always available to help other students who were feeling added stress during testing periods or as grades came in.
“We have kids who are in the counseling office and they’re having anxiety attacks and just they’re overwhelmed and they’re in tears,” Johnessee said. “So what we did was we started asking if I could borrow Duck for a while to come with me to the counseling office. And that really just opened an avenue of really being able to help another group of kids.”
After that, Johnessee started thinking about the benefits of getting another therapy dog who could stay in the counseling office during the day, especially as the pandemic at the time had just started to ramp up in the U.S. Just before schools closed in the spring, she reached out to Rucker again.
Soon after, Lambert High School got its second therapy dog, an English cream retriever named Clover, and as the pandemic continued, they also brought in a charcoal Labrador named Charlie and a labradoodle named Maggie, who Johnessee takes care of herself.
Ever since bringing the new dogs onto campus this year, Johnessee said she can see a huge difference in the kids and even the staff. She has noticed kids interacting more with each other as they gather to see one of the dogs, she has seen that some kids are acting more confidently
and she has seen students find the calm in a moment with Clover or Maggie while the chaos of this year still unfolds.
“I think the fact that our kids have been so receptive to them has just really made it one of the most fun professional experiences I’ve really ever had,” Johnessee said.
Teachers have also been looking for these calm moments with the dogs, stopping by Johnessee’s office or one of the teacher’s classrooms to spend time with a dog for a minute.
“I think a lot of [the staff members] find the opportunity to see them and be with them to be like a little shot in the arm or a little reminder of, ‘I can get through the hard things,’” Johnessee said. “It’s been a hard year for our teachers, and being able to have that downtime and to check in and have someone ask about them for a minute — it’s been a cool thing.”
Even having Maggie on campus with her has improved Johnessee’s outlook this year and her relationship with students. She said that students often see her as an administrator instead of a mentor they can stop and chat with on the way to class. This way, she said students come to see her more often because they want to see Maggie.
“It does help a little bit because I hope that the students feel more comfortable coming to me if they have concerns or issues or even something to celebrate,” Johnessee said.
As school leaders start to plan for a new semester going into 2021, she hopes to continue with the therapy dog program and continue improving programs such as these that help students through difficult times even outside of the pandemic.
The program at Lambert, and at other schools in the county, has been a huge success, and Johnessee said that she is grateful that she works in a district that values both student wellness and academics.
“I hope it’s a great opportunity for us to continue to really reach kids’ hearts and then minds, and I would say that’s our goal for what we’re trying to accomplish here,” Johnessee said.