Waning Worries with Wags

Features Uncategorized
by Alyssa Chen, Lynn Kim, Features reporters, Sarah Feinberg, Features Editor
photo by Eva Shimkus

Teaching assistant Julie Kaplan said that it was only by chance that her dog, Bailey, became South’s beloved emotional therapy dog; nonetheless, it was meant to be. 

When Newton South suddenly shut down due to the pandemic in March 2020, she had run into school with Bailey to grab a few items, passing the nurse’s office. After meeting Bailey, the nurses immediately proposed the idea of an emotional support dog. Now, merely 18 months later, the two-year-old cockapoo is a “sophomore” at Newton South and certified by Canine Good Citizen, a dog training program.

Kaplan said that after only a few days of working at South last year, Nurse Bailey quickly adjusted to his new job in the nurse’s office and began looking forward to his interactions with students. 

He was very nervous when he first came. He waited for me to come, and he cried several times,” she said. “Now, he loves his job. When I come into the building and let go of the leash, he dashes into the nurse’s office.”

Nurse Karleen Kiritsy, who frequently walks Bailey, said that even though he was not originally trained as an emotional support dog, his compassion and kindness around students, particularly when they are anxious, comes naturally.
“He just has this innate ability to come up and comfort them. He sits with them as they pet him,” she said. “He just instinctively knows how he can help people.”

After an isolated sophomore year during the pandemic, junior Naomi Metcalf said that visiting Bailey during breaks in her day has eased the stress that came along with returning to a high-strung academic environment. 

“Being back in the building, it’s scary to try to take a break because you know there’s people everywhere,” she said. “I really like going to the nurse’s office and hanging out with Bailey … He really calms me down.”

Ninth grade physics teacher Zoe Hasham said that she has noticed a rise in students’ mental health issues as many people, including teens, faced a lot of stress during the  pandemic. 

This past year or two has been the time when I’ve heard about the most deaths [and] community turmoil that people have been dealing with,” Hasham said. “It’s a lot.” 

Guidance counselor Ariel Kenyon said that access to stress relievers, like Bailey, is vital to help students to feel safe in their environments and to do their best. 

 “When we’re anxious, we get into this fight, flight or freeze mode … which certainly makes it harder to engage with whatever is in front of you and take in other contextual information,” she said. “If you’re feeling better and less stressed, you’re able to focus more and be more fully present in class, which then helps you be more efficient with your time, and so there’s a domino effect.”

While South’s intense school culture can be anxiety-provoking, Metcalf said that when she feels overwhelmed, stopping by the nurse’s office to visit Bailey helps her feel ready for class again. 

“He is genuinely the sweetest dog I’ve ever met. He doesn’t bark [or] growl and he just hangs out, plays with his ball and likes belly rubs,” she said. “He’s just a nice presence that isn’t another person perceiving or judging you for being stressed, and that can be really calming.”

Hasham said that mental health is slowly becoming more of a priority in classroom settings. 

Once you cover [feeling comfortable and not anxious in the classroom], then you can start learning,” she said. “I am more worried about my students having good mental health than learning the equation for velocity.”

Like Metcalf, senior Simon Barr said that after taking a break from class, he feels ready to return to the classroom and be engaged.

“Visiting Bailey makes my five-minute break feel like a 20-minute break. It really improves my mood,” he said.

Kenyon said that Bailey is a unique addition to South’s team of mental health supporters for students as South furthers its efforts to create a more emotionally-aware environment. While he isn’t the key to mental health issues at South, she said that he is certainly a place to start.

“[Having an emotional support dog] is a good, what I would call, ‘tier one support,’ meaning everyone can access the therapy dog, which is a beautiful thing,” she said. “It can definitely help reduce anxiety and stress, but I don’t know if it would resolve it, like talk therapy would and such.”

Metcalf said that as South continues to increase its attention to mental health in a stressful environment, it is important to continue implementing additional actions to address the rising issue at the school.

“Bailey should be seen as a step in the right direction to continue having more mental health resources and options at the school,” she said. “Having an emotional therapy dog is a great option and it really works for some students.”