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Therapy pooches used for soothing students at Battle Creek’s schools

BATTLE CREEK — A second grader at Prairieview Elementary was having a rough start to a gloomy on a recent Wednesday morning.

Rain had spoiled a chance to use the playground, and the boy was having a bout of separation anxiety as he entered his classroom.

Ohana came to his rescue.

The boy was encouraged to walk the 1-year-old female black lab — Prarieview’s in-house therapy dog — upstairs to her resource room.

And just like that, his face lit up and the anxiety washed away.

“There are kids who struggle to transition into the building,” Prarieview Principal Stacy Helmboldt told the Battle Creek Enquirer. “It’s a great distraction. A positive distraction.”

Ohana is the second therapy dog to be used in the Lakeview School District, introduced largely due to the success of Lucy, a springer spaniel, who arrived at Riverside Elementary in 2018. Pennfield Schools also has a therapy dog.

To put it another way, schools in Battle Creek are going to the dogs, and that’s not a bad thing.

“It really does change the environment and whole atmosphere at school,” said Kelsey Sinclair, resource room teacher at Prairieview and Ohana’s main handler. “She does it for staff too… Ohana does a nice job of not only cheering up the kids, but cheering up the adults. It’s hard not to smile when you see a dog, especially one as cute and friendly as Ohana.”

Ohana was purchased by Lakeview School District thanks to a generous gift from an anonymous donor. It cost roughly $9,000 to train the dog and care for her for a year.

Lakeview was inspired by Brighton Public Schools, which has a thriving program with 11 therapy dogs. Not to be confused with emotional support or service animals, therapy dogs undergo specialized training to offer comfort and affection.

During the day, Ohana “works” by wearing her therapy dog vest and stays with Sinclair, who brings the pup with her when she pulls students to come to her resource room. At night, the canine sheds her vest and lives the life of a dog at the home of Lakeview Superintendent Blake Prewitt.

Ohana is trained not to approach others, but to let students approach her, in case some are fearful of dogs. There are also parameters so the therapy pooch doesn’t go near students with known dog allergies.

“Ohana” is Hawaiian word which refers to a person’s extended family, which was popularized in the 2002 Disney film, “Lilo and Stitch.” Helboldt said the school picked the name.

“Like all schools, we’re seeing an increase of students who come to us with a backgrounds of trauma and stress in their home lives. So we want school to be a safe place, where truly it feels like a family,” she said. “Ohana means family. Nobody gets left behind. That’s touching. That’s where her name came from, and we feel like she helps create that family vibe.”

Brody James, a black lab mix and a rescue dog, came to Pennfield in 2017 as a newborn puppy. His owner is Molly Collins, the high school physical education teacher.

Brody stays with Collins “pretty much 24/7,” she said, but leaves her office to exercise in the gym, read with students in classrooms or simply offer a comforting presence when needed.

“The kids know he has tricks,” Collins said. “They get down on one knee, and Brody will give them a hug.”

Collins started a Brody James Scholarship in 2018, which goes to a student who demonstrates a loyalty to the school community. The scholarship awards $300 — the price she paid to purchase the pup — to a graduating senior.

Brody, too, has turned the tassel. Before the school year, he graduated to officially become a certified therapy dog.