Canine comfort: Therapy dogs offer calm

Photos by Brittney Lohmiller/The Herald
Benedict, a 16-week-old goldendoodle puppy, receives a scratch from Holy Trinity Catholic School first-grader Ellie Kramer as he visits students with Fr. Gary Kaiser at the school's Central Campus in Jasper on Tuesday. Fr. Kaiser is training Benedict to be a therapy dog for the school and parish. "My hope is that he'll touch people and bring them joy," Fr. Kaiser said. "And will help them get closer to God and their neighbors."

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

While Father Gary Kaiser sits in his office at Holy Trinity Catholic School, a 16-week old goldendoodle climbs all over his lap as though the priest is a jungle gym.

The pup’s name is Benedict — yes, like the saint — and he is the youngest of several therapy and comfort dogs offering their services around Dubois County.

Therapy and comfort dogs go through specific obedience training that prepares them to interact with a variety of people in many different situations, though they are not service dogs and are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In Benedict’s case, being a therapy dog means accompanying Kaiser as he performs his priestly duties around the community, whether it’s interacting with students at Holy Trinity Catholic School, holding Mass at Precious Blood Church or visiting the homebound.

“It touches their hearts,” Kaiser said. “It’s not necessarily that I have the thing to say; it’s not necessarily that we can fix things. It’s just that presence.”

Benedict is just beginning his therapy dog training by taking a Canine Good Citizen course, the first step in becoming a certified therapy dog. He may still be in training, but Kaiser said the little goldendoodle is already making a difference in people’s lives. Kaiser brought Benedict along to visit one homebound parishioner who had been struggling with depression. The parishioner interacted with Benedict, and the next time Kaiser came to visit, the parishioner was up and around, excited to see Benedict.

“Their family sent their thanks,” Kaiser said. “But it wasn’t me. It was Benedict.” 

Fr. Gary Kaiser and his 16-week-old goldendoodle puppy, Benedict, visit with Holy Trinity Catholic School pre-schoolers at the school's Central Campus in Jasper on Tuesday.

Half an hour away, Lucas the black labrador serves as a fully-trained therapy dog around Ferdinand. Lucas’ owner, Emi Steczyk, teaches art at Cedar Crest Intermediate School and Forest Park Junior-Senior High School, and Lucas goes with her to class. Once a month, he also visits the Ferdinand Branch Library where kids snuggle with him while they read.

“This is one of his favorite things,” Steczyk said. “He loves when people read to him.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Grayson Schipp of Ferdinand, 3, used Lucas for a pillow while Rohan Vishal of Jasper, 7, read “Mater and the Little Tractor” aloud. When Vishal finished, Lucas carried an ant puppet around the room, stopping to say hi to everyone he passed, tail wagging as he walked.

Steczyk adopted Lucas from the Dubois County Humane Society in 2017. Once she saw how calm his personality was, she decided to train him to be a therapy dog. The Steczyk’s previous dog, a German shepherd named Wrigley, also had a calm personality. When Wrigley passed, Steczyk decided that if she was blessed with a calm dog again, she’d train that dog to be a therapy dog.

“I’m glad I did it,” Steczyk said. “I like the joy he brings people.” 

Lucas also brings people together, Steczyk said. In her classroom, for example, she has students who have grown up together, but have never spoken to each other, simply because they hang out in different cliques. Since she started bringing Lucas to school, she’s seen kids who weren’t friends sit down and talk to each other while they pet the lab.

Lucas is one of three therapy dogs that frequent Cedar Crest. Two other dogs, a 9-year-old goldendoodle named Parker and a 2-year-old black lab named Ellie, have their own headshots on the school’s staff page. They’re officially titled “school dog therapists.”

Fr. Gary Kaiser and his 16-week-old goldendoodle puppy, Benedict, visit with Holy Trinity Catholic School second-grader Joe Buehler, right, and his mother, Molly, at the school's Central Campus in Jasper on Tuesday.

“If memory serves me right, (Parker) may have been the first dog in a school in Dubois County,” said Principal Mark Jahn who also owns Parker and Ellie.

Jahn began bringing Parker to school with him when the pup was 6 weeks old.

“It creates a calming and upbeat atmosphere throughout the whole school,” Jahn said.

Ellie and Parker serve a dual role. Their main job is to calm students and staff during stressful times such as testing periods, but they also help students learn canine etiquette. Before students can pet either dog, they have to ask the staff member handling the dog for permission, just as they should with any dog, Jahn said.

Neither Parker or Ellie is a fully trained therapy dog, but they have completed several training courses.

Cedar Crest isn’t the only school to regularly have dogs around. Dubois Middle School Principal Ryan Case brings his dog, Lottie, to school once a month to serve as a comfort dog, and Jasper High School set up a comfort dog program in 2016. Three days a week, a pup named Serena lounges around the JHS main office, greeting everyone who walks in. Two other dogs, Dexter and Bogey, come into classrooms with their owners every day.

“Both instructors share that the classroom atmosphere is much more positive with the dogs present,” Assistant Principal Glenn Buechlein, who spearheaded starting the program, said via email. “Students relate that they love the dogs being around for various reasons. Mostly, the dogs seem to relieve stress and anxiety.”

Having dogs around schools seems to be gaining popularity. Last week, a group from Perry Central High School visited JHS to check out the program, and educators from South Knox visited last year. Since the visit, South Knox has set up a comfort dog program as well.

No matter the location, it seems, everyone can use a little canine comfort.

Fr. Gary Kaiser talks about his 16-week-old goldendoodle puppy, Benedict, with Holy Trinity Catholic School pre-schoolers at the school's Central Campus in Jasper on Tuesday.



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