Benefits for Volunteers and Those in Need of Friendly Support
Dexter the English Labrador has a busy schedule at Creekside Intermediate School in Dexter. There are students to meet, teachers to greet, and kids that need a little TLC to help them through the day.
Dexter’s work is part of a growing trend of using trained therapy animals to help people cope, succeed, relax, or connect.
Research by the American Heart Association and others show that spending time with an animal can lower your risk of heart disease and increase levels of serotonin and dopamine — the “happy chemicals” that help your body feel relaxed and calm.
But when that pet is trained to “help,” the benefits multiply for both the pet owner and those they are serving.
Kristin Novak, a teacher at Creekside Intermediate School, is Dexter’s caregiver.
He lives with Novak and her family, but was originally purchased by the Dexter Rotary Club and given to the district as a gift. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving.
“For five years, we dropped him off in the morning and picked him up after school so that he could work with students at Mill Creek,” Novak recalled. “They loved him and he spent quality time tending students in several classrooms and playing in gym class.”
Dexter is now based in Novak’s classroom, where he is creating healthy connections for students and teachers alike. He’s a friendly and comforting presence in the hallways, with people stopping for a quick pet or a “Hi, Dex!”
Novak said they have a dog care team — students who apply for the job to take on the responsibility of walking, feeding, brushing Dexter. The team’s roster changes throughout the year, giving more students the chance to interact, especially important for those who cannot have a pet at home because of allergies or hectic schedules.
She said that Dexter attends counseling groups to provide support, and he generally provides love and goodwill as their school “dog.” It’s common to find a student reading next to him quietly, most days, stroking his fur.
Novak adds that Dexter is valuable in a variety of capacities. While his “day job” is at Creekside, he has also spent time in the greater Dexter community.
After the tornado that hit town a few years ago, Novak said they walked with Dexter to Wylie School, which was offering counseling to families who had been affected, and through Huron Farms, a subdivision that had been particularly hard-hit.
Novak and her family are also on the receiving end of Dexter’s innate compassion.
“We are more loved because of his sweetness, and we are more fit because he begs to go out to play or walk. He is a sensitive soul and will hang with us when we are under the weather for any reason,” Novak said.
Chelsea resident Barb Marshall also knows the value of bringing together pets and people in need.
She takes Bella, her Alliance of Therapy Dogs certified black lab, to St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea, the Chelsea Retirement Community, North Creek Elementary (Bella is the school’s official reading dog), and to the Chelsea Library, where she was named one of the 2016 Library Volunteers of the Year for her work.
Marshall said it’s amazing to see the reaction that their visits have upon people.
“We see the stress level and pain level of patients at the hospital immediately decrease when the dog visits. Nursing home residents look forward to our visit each week, and some residents who are typically non-responsive will brighten up and talk when the dog comes,” said Marshall.
“Our job is to make people smile and bring joy and I would say we accomplish that every time we visit!”