Barking around Okemos: the Woof Pack

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In Okemos Public Schools there are several furry friends that make 4,480 students’ days a little brighter.

Student surveys said, “We love having them around and feel she is a wonderful addition. I would support additional support dogs both in our school and around the district,” and “It’s absolutely amazing how the dogs can get students who never interact with anything to interact with her and she helps open that door to help create those relationships.”

The Okemos Woof Pack is the emotional support dog program in Okemos Public Schools. From staff hangouts to walks starting at the senior center, the dogs bring joy everywhere.

“I come in from lunch duty and I just see staff on the ground laying with her and petting her and stuff like that. Just an opportunity to decompress and relax a little bit,” said Steve Stierley, principal of Kinawa 5-6.

The program has six emotional support dogs. With two at Okemos High School and Chippewa Middle School, Kinawa 5-6, Bennet Woods and Hiawatha all having a dog with a staff handler. 

“After school I come in from car line and staff are all around her and she makes their day,” said Stierley.  

Students also can work with the dogs in the junior handler program. Hannah Alstrom is the Okemos High School facility dog student coordinator and wants to build the program.

“Madam (the high school program advisor and dog handler) asked me to join the program last year as I have many years of dog experience and dog training and experience to help build the junior handler program,” Alstrom said.

The junior handler program is an independent study that would give students the ability to learn how to train the dogs and take care of them during school.

“So, during fourth hour every day, I go to the dogs’ rooms, and I work with the dogs. So, things that I do on a daily basis. I do training to keep up with the practices, tricks training,” Alstrom said. “We also do weekly visits to students during lunch since it is during my fourth hour. I will go walk one of the dogs and go and greet students during lunch.”

The Woof Pack is also working on research about the emotional impacts that therapy dogs have on education. Molly Turner, a science teacher and handler for the program, leads the charge.

“We have the screener data, and here we have the attendance data and how’s that looking for some of our students who might be needing a little extra support,” said Turner.

Turner also talks about the possibility of future research within early education, once the program is more established in the elementary schools.  

“Once the elementary dogs get more established, really looking at the connection between the dogs and early literacy, skill building,” Turner said.

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