Goshen facility dogs connect with students

Sometimes, a pat on a friendly dog’s head can make the whole day a little bit better.

That’s what Goshen Local Schools are seeing now that they are the home to two facility dogs who have been trained to help reduce anxiety and connect with students in need.

Scientific research continues to show that interaction with dogs — specifically, trained dogs — can reduce cortisol levels and physiologically decrease stress for humans in distress. One study conducted in 2019 with college students indicated that interacting with a trained dog considerably reduced anxiety and feelings of sadness and improved happiness.

photo of dog on a leasMeg, a golden retriever, was the first facility dog to join Goshen Local Schools last year. Meg works at Goshen Middle School, and her host and handler, seventh grade math teacher Kelly DeNu, said she saw an immediate impact on students.

“They connect with her and even cared for her. They made sure that wrappers and other things were picked up off the floor so Meg wouldn’t get into them,” she said. “There was a definite change in the way they interacted with her and with each other.”

At the beginning of this school year, Goshen added Artis, a yellow Labrador retriever, to the high school. His handler, GHS science teacher Mike Kolkmeier, said he volunteered to help because he believes in the facility dog mission.

“I have always had a strong connection with animals, and truly believe that Artis can reach kids in ways I can only dream of without ever speaking a word,” he said. “Animals fill hearts even when people are at their lowest point. That is just something I wanted to be a part of and nurture here at GHS.”

photo of students with dogBoth dogs have been trained by the non-profit CircleTail, Inc., an accredited organization in Cincinnati that trains service and hearing dogs for people with disabilities. CircleTail also trains facility dogs for schools, court houses and other agencies. Both dogs had to complete an “internship” to monitor their temperament and their behavior around people before they could begin working in a school setting. Both Kolkmeier and DeNu also had training from CircleTail, along with a few other staff members work with the dogs. Although Kolkmeier is Artis’s handler at school, the dog lives with the family of Kristen Walker, GMS intervention specialist. Goshen used ESSR funds and grants from the Goshen Education Foundation to purchase the dogs.

Both Meg and Artis have a work schedule which runs the length of the school day and includes time working with students and rest breaks. For example, Artis greets students as they arrive in the morning, hangs out in Kolkmeier’s class until 10:15, then goes for a walk or works with Angel Tudor, GHS Intervention Specialist.

Meg was recently the subject of a flurry of attention after she posed for her yearbook photo. Local Cincinnati news stations, People Magazine, Good Morning America and other media outlets picked up the photo and did stories on the Goshen facility dog program.

Kolkmeier said that even though Artis has only been at Goshen for a few months, he will have an impact on students for a long time.

“I think Artis will help students by being there for them when they just need someone to talk to that listens but never judges. Artis helps the staff by reminding us that sometimes our kids don't need us, they just need a dog!” he said. “There are many days that school is tough and long, for both teachers and students. He can make even the most stressful day seem like no big deal when he locks onto you with those eyes and wagging tail.”