SALEM — Salem Preparatory High School has a secret weapon for handling students who struggle with emotional issues and learning disabilities: puppies.
Salem Prep has teamed up with Dog B.O.N.E.S., a Massachusetts network of emotional support dog teams, to help extend the potential of 24 students enrolled in the therapeutic day school. The program has been running this school year and will continue next year.
The final visit for the year took place last week, as students said goodbye to dogs they have met weekly and grown to cherish.
"He has bonded. He knows the dog's name and looks forward to (seeing Winnie)," said Kim Arsenault, of her 17-year-old son, Hunter, and an intimidatingly sized Leonberger. "Although we can't have a dog, he has an opportunity every week. And whenever he is with a dog, his whole demeanor is happy, loving, and it puts him in a good mood for the entire day."
Salem Prep, located in the back of New Liberty Innovation School at Witch City Mall, is a therapeutic day school representing "the most restrictive placement you can get in a public school setting before being sent to an out-of-district placement," said Brian Edmunds, the school's program director.
Students have a variety of challenges to overcome, some with autism, some with emotional disorders. "All students are cognitively intact," Edmunds said. "It's just the emotional struggles that inhibit their progress."
Some students develop strong bonds with a teacher, and those connections help a student grow and overcome challenges. But it appears everyone has bonded with the dogs.
"It's like going to the gym, kind of," Edmunds said. "You get to practice building strength. Working with dogs, which is lower stakes, isn't as scary as having to read a person's emotions."
The relationship with Dog B.O.N.E.S. — Dogs Building Opportunities for Nurturing and Emotional Support — was launched with the help of Deb Jeffers, the school district's food service director and a support dog owner herself.
For some kids, it makes all the difference. The school's lowest attendance day was always Monday. Though data showing the trend wasn't immediately available, Edmunds said weekly dog visits and programming with the dogs every Monday morning caused attendance on the worst day of the week to spike.
"They have something to look forward to over the weekend," Edmunds said. "That's a nice routine, and it establishes consistency."
One student hooked on seeing the dogs each week is Hunter, Arsenault's son.
"He's sick, woke up sick yesterday," Arsenault said. "And he said, 'I have to go into school because the dogs will be there, and I can't miss it.'"
Of course, this isn't anything like getting a job at a puppy-petting factory. Most weeks, curriculum and games are woven into the dog visits.
There are three dogs making the stops at Salem Prep: Winnie, a 3-year-old Leonberger owned by Reading resident Mike Boston; Sir Riley, a 5-year-old mini poodle owned by Wakefield resident Bonnie Hobbs; and Paxton, a West Highland white terrier owned by Fran Weil.
But this isn't a relationship that benefits only the students. The care goes both ways, according to Boston.
"Winnie gets as much out of it as the kids get out of Winnie," he said. "She loves to be petted, loves to be near people. And I get a lot out of it, too."
Hobbs, standing nearby with Sir Riley, was quick to affirm that.
"That's it," she said. "We give to the kids. We make a difference in their lives at that moment, and we get so much back at that moment."
Hobbs recalled a visit to an area kindergarten class, where there was a circle of children and one child off to the side, not in the circle. The girl, she said, "was hunched over and all alone."
"I said, 'Would you like to pet Riley?' And she shook her head yes, patted (Riley) on her head," Hobbs said. "All of a sudden, her face was buried in Riley. She gave her a hug."
Moments later, the girl was part of the circle, Hobbs said.
"I'm hooked at that point," Hobbs said. "You can't change their lives, but you can make them feel better at that moment."