Michaela (right) and Maslow with Midway Middle School staff members.

If you’ve ever owned a dog, then you will understand the meaning of “man’s best friend.” Their soothing, fun-loving, and charismatic nature profoundly affects the mood of the environment. With just under a year of implementation, our therapy dog program at Midway Middle School in Hewitt, TX, has already made a huge impact on our staff and students’ morale and mental well-being.

Advisers and students are faced with many daily challenges imposed by the pandemic, government turmoil, and issues involving diversity. Studies have shown the negative impact that our current realities are having on the mental health and well-being of those in the educational system—both advisers and students.

Sobering Statistics

Teachers, especially those in adviser roles, are an essential component to the campus culture and climate. They are the most influential factor of student success and well-being, and it is imperative that teacher health and well-being are our top priorities. Unfortunately, teacher stress and anxiety are at an all-time high. Increased workload, juggling remote and in-person teaching expectations, maintaining student well-being, and managing work-life balance all contribute to teacher stress and burnout. At the end of November 2020, about 48% of all women and 37% of all men exhibited symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Household Pulse Survey.” Last August, the National Education Association found that 28% of educators said that the pandemic made them more likely to leave teaching. Teachers, like students, need a support system to help reduce stress and anxiety.

Schools also have seen a rise in mental health concerns for today’s youth. Students enter our buildings with the weight of the world on their shoulders. With exposure to social media, cyberbullying, digital media, violence, and much more, our students experience overwhelming feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 6 U.S. youths ages 6–17 experience a mental health disorder each year, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10–34. Implementing a program to improve the mental well-being of our children is critical and necessary.

Our Therapy Dog Program

Meet Maslow and his owner/trainer, Michaela McCord. Michaela is a counselor intern at Midway Middle School. When she first began at our campus, we had no idea the lasting impact she would make on our staff and students.

If Maslow fits, he sits.

Maslow spending some quality time with students.

I had researched and promoted the implementation of a therapy dog program for a year-and-a-half prior to Michaela coming to us. I found several studies showing the positive effects that therapy dogs were having on student academic and social growth. A 2019 study published by the National Institute of Health found that a dog present in the classroom promotes positive mood and provides significant anti-stress effects on the body. An additional study conducted by the University of California on canine reading programs found that students who participated in one program increased their reading fluency by between 12% and 30%. So, when Michaela told me she had a therapy dog, I knew this was our opportunity to implement a program.

Maslow—the therapy dog—and Michaela have greatly impacted our staff and students. One student who was asked how Maslow has helped her replied, “He has helped me a lot! I feel more confident, and he has reduced my anxiety. His smile and the look in his eyes make you feel like you can do anything.” This student also said, “Maslow creates a way for students who are shy to break out of their shell. I know I can be myself around him because he doesn’t judge me or tell me I’ve done something wrong. He makes all of us happier and [gives us] something to look forward to when we come to school.”

Maslow has also made an impact on our intensive behavior students. With the use of scheduled Maslow time and incentive rewards to see Maslow, we have seen a reduction in these students’ severe behaviors.

Maslow has also provided an avenue to relieve stress and anxiety in our teachers. This year has created many hardships for our staff members, and the soothing love of our furry friend has boosted their overall morale. Furthermore, since our program has been extremely successful, our district is looking at the possibility of making Michaela and Maslow a full-time program.

If you have not thought about a therapy dog program, I urge you to find a way to get a furry friend onto your campus. Your staff and students can and will benefit from it. —

April Harris is an assistant principal at Midway Middle School in Hewitt, TX.