Christopher Willett’s East Valley Academy students wake up a little more excited than most to go to school – thanks to their new furry classmate.
Walter the therapy dog, an American Staffordshire Terrier with taupe-brown fur and hazel eyes, visits the students three days a week and accompanies them throughout their lessons.
He sits on their laps, snuggles up next to them and wanders around the dog-proofed classroom.
The pooch has become a beacon of friendship and compassion during times of distress, explained junior Aimee Munoz.
“Walter is great – he honestly brightens up my day,” she said. “I feel like when he’s in class, I have a friend. He’s really comforting.”
The four-legged friend is part of Mesa Public Schools’ larger effort to help students develop critical social-emotional learning skills necessary for success in and out of the classroom.
The district this year launched a new pilot program, the Pawsitive Peers Foundation, to help teach resiliency, empathy and human-animal bonds through therapy dogs.
“As a district, and in the East Valley, we are dealing with the highest rates of suicides in the state,” said Tot Wallace, community education and outreach director. “So, we thought, ‘what are we not tapping into and why would we leave any stone unturned?”
“What research tells us about effective programs is one of the lead programs is using therapy dogs,” she continued. “The body produces oxytocin [a hormone that plays a role in social bonding] specific to interactions with dogs.”
The pilot follows the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, developed by Yale University and the North Shore Animal League America in 2010.
The curriculum centers on social-emotional learning and uses the “natural affinity” between kids and pets to teach empathy, self-confidence, teamwork and ethical decision-making, according to the program’s website.
Research shows reading, talking or even thinking about pets calms students down and helps them focus.
Calmer classrooms mean more learning, more retention and less bullying.
“These kids are in crisis,” said Wallace. “It’s not just always about a school shooting. Those are big events but crisis is occurring every day in their lives.”
“We don’t really know what they are experiencing,” she continued. “But the dog senses it.”
The five Mesa schools participating in the pilot include East Valley Academy, Johnson Elementary, Kino Junior High, Mountain View High and Rhodes Junior High.
Parents were given prior notice and the opportunity to opt-out, but so far none have, Wallace said.
In those schools, teachers volunteered to adopt their own rescue dogs and undergo rigorous obedience and therapy training – which they paid for out of their own pockets.
All teachers and pets must be certified by Pet Partners, a national organization dedicated to improving human health and well-being through the human-animal bond, in order to participate.
The district has also partnered with the Arizona Humane Society, Arizona Animal Welfare League and Maricopa County Animal Care and Control to identify compatible shelter dogs to add to the program.
East Valley Academy Principal Justine Pilar said she did not hesitate to sign her school up.
She strongly believes in the healing power of dogs, she added.
“The most beneficial thing I’ve seen are the kids who are just really struggling but don’t feel like they want to talk about it,” she said. “But then they ask to spend time with the dog.”
“It’s like this magical little connection that helps them work through whatever emotional thing they’re going through,” she continued.
While the Academy has a total of three dogs, Walter is a fan-favorite.
Willett adopted Walter from the Pinal County Animal Shelter last spring and underwent 16 weeks of obedience and therapy training.
“I’m always thinking about ways we can have a positive impact on our students because they’re struggling with all sorts of things,” Willett explained.
Because Walter was fresh out of the shelter, the pair had a bit of a rocky start.
“The first training was horrible; he fought me and refused to listen,” said Willett. “He’s super strong so we were wrestling for a whole hour.”
Starting with obedience training, the owner taught Walter how to sit, stay and “walk nicely,” before moving on to therapy training.
In therapy, Willett worked to better understand Walter’s comfort zones.
“In therapy training, both you and your dog have to learn to work together,” said Willett. “You have to learn what it is the dog can handle – some dogs don’t like crowds of people.”
Luckily, Walter loves crowds, said his owner, and thrives off of attention.
Now, the two have an unbreakable bond.
“We went on walks all the time and I also talked to him a lot,” said Willett. “It was really about building that bond together because now he’s my dog and sits on my lap on the couch.”
Students and staff alike have been swooning over the pooch since he first joined the classroom in November, the teacher added.
“Walter is very calm and gentle,” he said. “I think for the kids, it’s so hard to be in a bad mood when you’re petting a dog.”
Adding, “All his attention is on you and all he wants is for you to be his best friend and pet him.”
During class time, Walter roams around freely with his leash still attached.
He also goes on scheduled visits with Willett to other classrooms and takes walks across campus.
“I love him,” said Freshman Landon Diaz. “I’m more excited about school and it helps me get up in the morning to come to school to see him and pet him.”
At Mountain View, more than 40 positive student experiences have been documented, according to district data.
The instances include students saying they feel more eager to go to school and feel less depressed or anxious in the presence of the dogs.
Schools have also witnessed an overall increase in attendance, Wallace explained.
“The dogs have been used to deescalate situations where kids are fighting coming off the playground and end up interacting with the dog and apologizing to one another,” she said.
“With individual students, we can track a number of behavior incidences have gone done,” Wallace continued. “And of course, better attendance impacts academic performance.”
As far as next steps, the district is already working to expand the program to about five to eight schools next semester.
The next batch will begin the process at the beginning of the year and incorporate the dogs during the 2020-21 school year.
Currently, the district has 12 Pet Partners-certified dogs working within the five schools.
Curriculum has also been donated by Yale and North Shore.
“I’m just really grateful MPS is open to leaving no stone unturned for the health of our students and for their wellbeing,” said Wallace.