Therapy pets help students

Service animals benefit students’ mental and physical health


C.J. Carnacchio/Charter Township of Oxford

Oxford Middle School students pet Oxford, one of the Oakland County Sheriff’s therapy dogs. ”Therapy dogs provide mental health benefits such as promoting independence, increasing motivation and managing student isolation and loneliness,” according to

Lauren Devereux, Kendall Westgate, Alyssa Brown, Co-Editor-in-Chiefs, Editor

Navigating high school brings stress and challenges such as: making and losing friends, undergoing break-ups or a tough class schedule—but owning an animal can help people push through the hardest of days.
“Whenever I’m feeling down, I know my dog is always there for me and she cheers me up whether I want to or not,” senior Lydia Mervar said. “She’s super smart and I love helping her figure things out; that gets my mind focused on something other than what’s bothering me.”
While there are a variety of benefits to owning a pet at home, teenage anxiety tends to heighten at school. As a result, providing therapy dogs at school benefits students’ mental, physical and emotional well-being and curbs some of that anxiety students feel.
Pet ownerships improves physical health since they help decrease blood pressure, decrease cholesterol levels and increase opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Pet owners achieve better sleep by walking a pet every day, which reduces high blood pressure, according to HelpGuide.
“Owning a pet has just been so nice for helping me relax after a long day,” junior Olivia Sugameli said. “It’s helped a lot knowing that there is always someone there waiting for you when you get home. Both of my dogs have brought happiness and positivity to both my family and friends, especially when we’re having a bad day.”
“When overwhelmed, therapy dogs provide mental health benefits such as promoting independence, increasing motivation and managing student isolation and loneliness,” according to
“My dog Ruby is just always there for me when I am having a bad day and always cheers me up simply by how cute she is,” junior Amy Sidaway said. “Also, taking her for a walk is a great way to clear my head when I’m feeling overwhelmed.”
Day-to-day pressure to excel inside and outside of school continues to grow as teens make their way through high school. The ongoing demand for good grades and high GPAs can be overwhelming. Roughly 75 percent of students experienced feelings of helplessness and frequent anxiety during their high school years, according to Like having a pet at home is helpful to relieve stress, the same is true for at school.
“I think having a therapy dog in the building would relieve a sense of anxiety among students,” counselor Amy Chappelle said. “In my opinion, having a therapy dog would be an incredible resource that we could offer to help students get through their day.”
Test scores are directly affected by level of stress, according to Ben Bernstein, PhD of Stanford University, via By petting an animal, the stress-reducing hormone, oxytocin increases and the stress-inducing hormone, cortisol decreases, according to
“Therapy dogs would definitely provide a sense of calmness and relief to students,” Chappelle said. “I think that they would have a great impact here and bring joy to the building that sometimes is needed.”
Due to recent events, such as the Oxford High School shooting and COVID-19, many schools around Michigan have been trying to find ways for students to feel safe at school. Along with updated security protocols, some schools initiated therapy dog programs to assist students struggling with their mental health and to provide comfort in schools.
There are at least 11 school districts in Michigan who implemented a therapy dog program of some type, according to an article in the
“In light of recent events, I think it’s important to have an outlet such as having a pet to help destress after a long day,” junior Nahvi Job said.
While some schools house their own service animal, others utilize outsourcing and schedule a time for therapy dogs to come in during stressful times to aid students.
“When I bring him (the dog) in and it’s that time of the year, the kids always come right up to us and they say, ‘this is exactly what I needed. I can go and take this exam now,’” therapy dog owner Erika Tobin said. “So, I know it causes a lot of releases of hormones that allows them to relax and allows them to just feel like they can overcome the anxiety that they have going into taking any sort of exam or some sort of stressful situation.”
Tobin’s program, Bright and Beautiful, works with schools to bring in different breeds of dogs when scheduled. In order for a dog to join the program, they must pass a certification test and be insured. Insuring the dog means schools aren’t reliable.
“I would love to be in more schools. The kids love it and even the staff, the teachers, anybody who works in the schools benefits from it as well,” Tobin said. “When we visit the school, it’s not just for the kids, even the teachers stop and want to pet them. They say how great it is that we’re here. Just bringing awareness to it is a great thing.”
There are no immediate plans to implement a therapy dog program in Utica Community Schools, according to principal Jared McEvoy.
“I believe there could be a lot of positives to it,” McEvoy said. “We’ve seen in recent news kind of a, for lack of better word, uptick in their use, which I think could have some positives for sure on the student population.”
There was talk about testing pilot programs across the district with animals, but no definite process or plans have been put into place at this time.
“As with anything involving animals, there’s kind of pros and cons that comes with it, bringing even a well trained dog in this case into the building. The buildings and district kind of have to weigh or look into: how we would address students with phobias and how would we address students with allergies. So, all of those things kind of have to be at least considered in advance,” McEvoy said.
Nearby Rochester Community School district, as well as Oxford School district, currently utilize therapy dogs. Districts are also using their share of Michigan’s $6 billion in federal COVID-19 funds to purchase dogs and pay for training, according to, which will continue to build therapy dog programs in more schools.
“I just think that there’s definitely some steps that need to be taken, but I think it’d be worth it in the end,” Chappelle said. “The benefits of having a therapy dog can significantly help the mental and emotional well-being of students on a day to day basis.”