Having a ‘Ruff’ Day? DSUSD employs therapy dogs to help

Did you know that the simple act of petting an animal releases an automatic relaxation response? Research shows that the action releases serotonin and oxytocin-hormones that play a part in elevating moods.

Therapy Dogs Offer Dose of Well-Being at DSUSD

Budders and her human Sue Ann Blach

In today’s challenging times, an extra dose of well-being is welcome! At DSUSD, that extra bit of emotional support often comes from one of the therapy dogs at several of our schools. The dogs may think that they are the ones getting the love but it is those who have the opportunity to interact with Budders and Quartz and Paula who know that we are the ones who walk away feeling just a bit better than we did before.

Budders and Quartz are therapy dogs owned by two DSUSD staff members. Budders and her human, Sue Ann Blach, ERMHS counselor (educationally related mental health services), spend most of their time at Summit High School. This school shares a physical campus with Horizon School so Budders gets to see lots of students. She also visits other DSUSD schools. Blach explains, “Animal Assisted Therapy is a goal-driven intervention, directed and/or delivered by a health, human, or education service professional and is meant to improve physical, social, emotional and/or cognitive function of students and/or staff members. Therapy dogs are individually trained, evaluated, and registered with his/her handler to provide animal assisted activities, animal assisted therapy and animal assisted interactions within a certain setting.”

Therapy Dogs Offer Dose of Well-Being at DSUSD

Paula waits to check out a book in the library.

Budders (shortened from Butterscotch) accompanies her human to student mental health appointments, classroom visits, and staff meetings. She has joined the team at school board meetings, as well. Blach is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a board certified art therapist with a special interest in trauma treatment.  “Having a neurobiological understanding of trauma and knowing how to use art in treatment has helped me increase student engagement in therapy, and I have another tool, Budders!” Blach states. She goes on, “I’ve witnessed Budders engage withdrawn and socially avoidant students who have caution with adults or social opportunities. Budders is seen as a safe and non-threatening entity; students are willing to soften their defenses with her around.”

According to Blach, Budders has been an essential staff during school closure, the hybrid schedule, and now returning full time. “The safety measures with the pandemic included physical distancing and limited social interaction. Budders offered a safe and healthy way to give hugs and provide that physical comfort that we need to have good mental health wellness.” Blach shared that Budders has contributed to reducing the stigma of mental health. “Students approach me initially to pet Budders and they eventually learn about what we do. She has been an ice breaker for students that would have not asked for help or taken a chance to share about personal challenges that impact them at school.” Budders can be seen almost daily at the school quad during lunch time. She is ready for pets, a lean (hug), a game of fetch, and/or a back/belly rub. Blach shared, “One day, Dr. Strange, Summit High School assistant principal, approached me and said “a student asked “Where’s Budders? She’s a reason I’m excited to come to school.”

Therapy Dogs Offer Dose of Well-Being at DSUSD

Quartz and Budders lead the way.

Following the success of Budders, Shadow Hills High School Assistant Principal Sharon Kalkoske, Ed.D., became a therapy dog handler and Quartz joined the Knights team. Kalkoske explained to an Animal Samaritan volunteer that she was working on her dissertation on therapy dogs. The volunteer was at Shadow Hills High School with her dog Glee. Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) was looking for a school to pilot their repurposed therapy dog program and Quartz was ready. The repurposed therapy program is for dogs who have retired from other service or, for whatever reason, don’t fit the mold for the service program they are in.

Service dogs such as Budders and Quartz visit our schools through community programs. Teacher Michelle Veliz at Ronald Reagan Elementary School assists Guide Dogs of the Desert and she is training Paula, a standard poodle. Part of that training finds Paula on campus at the school. At approximately age two, Paula will join her new human, ready to serve and assist. As for Mrs. Veliz and the school, they are already planning on welcoming their next dog.

Desert Sands Unified School District is committed to the whole student, not only providing a quality education but a safe and nurturing environment. The human staff appreciates and values the work of our canine staff.

Lead photo caption: Sharon Kalkoske and Quartz

Image Sources

  • Woman-and-Dog: DSUSD
  • Teacher-and-kids: DSUSD
  • Two-dogs: DSUSD
  • Sharon Kalkoske and Quartz: DSUSD