Cuddles, calm & comfort: AAPS therapy dogs become part of the team

Star, Gracie, Lola, and Mocha provide nonverbal therapy

At a growing number of Ann Arbor Public Schools, a gentle type of nonverbal therapy comes in the form of tail-wagging canines eager to greet and cuddle with the next eager friend.

“Our school dogs provide connections for students and staff,” says Karen Storey, founder of 4 Pawz Strong, who is training Lola, the therapy dog soon to become part of the Angell Elementary community. “The dogs provide a non-judgmental environment to any room. Who doesn’t love seeing a dog wag its tail at you when you walk by?”

These therapy dogs include Star (Abbot Elementary), Gracie (Wines Elementary) Lola (Angell Elementary), and Mocha (coming soon to Skyline High School).

Dog trainer Greg Lambert has worked with three of the district’s therapy dogs. He is now training Wines’ Gracie, and Mocha, who will join Skyline High School.

Lambert said he’s seen awesome results with kids in the district.
“I’ve been seeing awesome results with making kids a lot more comfortable. Kids are having a bad day getting to kind of bring the dog and implement that around them to help them you know with tougher situations. It’s a scary little place to kind of go down for me just because I know how we can’t predict everything we can’t train for every little situation. That’s why we do so much work to try and get the dog used to all these situations to make sure we never have anything negative happen with them because the pros are just so giant so worth it.

Star: The first therapy dog in the district

Star—the bernedoodle (part Bernese Mountain Dog, part poodle) at Abbot Elementary—was the district’s first therapy dog when she joined the school family in 2020.

Principal Pam Sica had heard about the therapy dogs in the Brighton School District. She contacted Karen Storey, who had started Brighton’s program, 4 Pawz Strong, and learned about the process of adding a therapy dog. Star was donated by Mountain Doodles, and the Ann Arbor PTO Thrift Shop paid for her training.

How has Star been working out?

“Star is a wonderful addition to Abbot,” said Sica. “She reduces stress and anxiety.  Star creates a safe, happy, and comfortable environment for students and staff. Star has helped students come into the building on days they feel a little anxious about leaving their families.  We have students that request time with her when they are having a rough day. When she spends time in the classrooms the students are excited to see her and enjoy doing their work while sitting next to her. 

Sica said there were a couple of students that had expressed a fear of dogs.

“We talked with those students about their comfort level, respecting if they are okay if Star is in the classroom as long as she is not near them, or if they do not want her in the room at all.  One of our third graders told the teacher, `I used to be afraid of dogs but since I got to know Star I want a dog of my own!’ Another said, “My mom won’t let us get a dog but at least I have one at school.'”

Asked what she would say to other principals interested in getting a therapy dog, Sica said: “Do it.”

“You won’t be sorry,” she said.  “Star brightens everyone’s day.  Star is the best addition I’ve ever seen to a school in all my years in education.”  

Gracie: New to the Wines community


Gracie is the district’s second therapy dog. The black bernedoodle puppy was donated to Wines Elementary by Cindy Coleman of Michigan Mountain Doodles. Kindergarten teacher Lexi Fata has agreed to be Gracie’s caregiver, and she has been living with Gracie since early November.

Gracie visits Wines about four times a week, and trainer Greg Lambert visits the school to ensure things are going well and to provide any additional training tips.

DeYoung says so far, so great.

“We are just super pleased with her progression as a therapy dog,” he says, noting that she’s handled the job of meeting 400 students, and staff, and getting to know the school during her visits four days a week.

“We couldn’t be more pleased with how things are going so far.”

Fata agrees.

“Gracie is doing an awesome job,” says Fata, noting that for now, Gracie spends the majority of her time in her classroom while visiting other classrooms throughout the day. “As Gracie becomes more comfortable at school, she will be able to spend more time in other classrooms throughout the day. Gracie is doing a great job of learning her new routines at school and meeting so many students, staff, and community members.”

Fata says Gracie really enjoys being around the students in the classroom.

“Throughout the day, you may see Gracie walking around the classroom and helping my students learn during our center time, laying by students on the rug as they practice reading or playing fetch outside with students during recess time. Gracie has become a special part of the Wines community. The students love Gracie and love having her at school! 

Funding for Gracie’s training comes from the PTO, and fund-raisers such as the Run-a-Thon and the Wines Auction, and via direct donations. Dr. Andrea Burkhart of Vet on the Run will provide scouted vet services, and The Groom Room will provide grooming.

DeYoung noted that Gracie is trained and certified to be calm, patient, safe, and supportive in a busy school environment, and assured Wines families that any concerns will be fully and carefully addressed. 

He says he looks forward to Gracie being a long-term member of the Wines community.

Lola: in training for her new life at Angell Elementary


Angell Elementary Principal Megan Fenech watched and learned as Abbot and Wines elementary schools acquired their therapy dogs, and was excited several weeks ago when 4 Paws Strong trainers introduced staff to Lola, Angell’s therapy mini golden doodle.

Last summer when she met with the PTO to discuss the annual walkathon fundraiser, she proposed a dog for the school.

“Almost everyone loves dogs, and social/emotional needs have not decreased, of course,” she said. “So we put feelers out with the PTO and the parent community here and there was overwhelming support and excitement about it.”

So the fall walkathon where students collect pledges was Lola’s sole funding source.

Fenech reached out to local professionals with a community focus to secure partnerships with them as far as veterinary and grooming services.

Lola is currently being trained and is expected to be integrated into the Angell community in late March or early April.

Mocha: In training for Skyline support


Skyline Ninth Grade Dean Terri Patterson is hosting Mocha, a mini goldendoodle who will join the Skyline community soon.

Eight-month-old Mocha has been in training since late August, working both with Patterson and Mocoa to understand basic commands.

This is Patterson’s second year working at Skyline High School. Prior to that, Casey Elmore had been wanting to bring in a therapy dog because there had been a significant increase in anxiety, depression, and school avoidance.

“In researching ways to support students, therapy dogs have been widely used in Brighton Schools, as well as in AAPS,” Patterson said. “Fast forward and here we are.”

Mocha was funded mostly by grants and private donors. 

“She is such a friendly girl!” said Patterson. “We have been training together once per week for two hours. We are still working on her listening and following commands. She does great, but we have some work to do in terms of corrections and being around lots of students.”

Mocha is still a few weeks away before she will be ready for 1,300 Skyline students, but she’s getting there, Patterson said, noting that Mocha is sassy and loves to be with people.

“She has been an amazing addition to our home,” she said, “and I am sure she will bring the same joy to Skyline.”

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