By Lily Grenis
In our society, it’s fairly common for families to include one or more furry, feathered or four-legged friends in addition to humans. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) approximates that 44 percent of American homes include a dog, and 35 percent have a cat.
Most anyone who has kept company with a pet knows the benefits such a relationship can offer. Nothing beats the feeling of playing fetch with Fido or curling up on a cold day with a snuggly buddy in your lap. It’s widely accepted within the psychological community that pet ownership provides benefits of companionship, comfort and a sense of purpose.
Additionally, studies suggest that these benefits have physical implications as well. According to Animal Planet, research published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology suggests that children exposed to animals early in their lives develop stronger immune systems than their pet-free counterparts. Animal Planet also cites studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which state that pet owners exhibit decreased risk factors for heart attacks, perhaps caused by lowered stress rates as a result of spending time with their furry friends.
All of these factors have shed new light on the importance of therapy animals, or animals who go with their owners to help reduce stress and provide emotional support in settings such as schools, nursing homes and hospitals. A therapy animal, most often a dog, differs from a service animal in that they often help people without physical disabilities, and their purpose does not include performing service tasks such as pulling a wheelchair or reminding their owner to take medication.
Therapy dogs provide a specific sort of aid in and of themselves, though. They can help those they work with to release calming endorphins like oxytocin, have lowered blood pressure, reduced physical pain and lessened symptoms of anxiety and depression.
For many at MPH in past years, Dean of Students Alex Leclercq’s dog Zoé provided all of this and more. Zoé, a certified American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Good Citizen and Sunshine Friends Incorporated (SFI) Pet Therapy Dog, started volunteering with Leclercq as a therapy dog for children learning to read. Her role came to include spending time with members of the MPH community in 2006. She could often be seen popping into classrooms and strutting down the halls to check on her favorite kids, and truly anyone in need of her comforting presence and unrelenting smile.
Fourth-grader Leah Stark became especially close to Zoé after the loss of her own beloved dog.
“She helped me when my dog passed away because my dog was very nice and Zoé kind of reminded me of him. She was like my dog, except a little different,” Stark said. “… When [my friends] were sad in the hallways, she would come by on Fridays all the time and she’d help them feel better.”
In light of Zoé’s positive affect on MPH, many were saddened by Leclercq’s decision to stop bringing her to campus in 2017. Leclercq and Head of Upper School John Stegeman said this decision came about for several reasons.
For picture day two years ago, several seniors received permission from the administration to bring their dogs to school. However, more students brought their pets than anticipated, and for longer than was initially permitted. As a formal school pet policy did not exist at the time, and Zoé had visited school for many hours on end, the students felt their pets’ presence on campus was justifiable, while some members of the administration viewed it as distracting and excessive.
At the time, Zoé was growing older and becoming more easily fatigued on her visits to MPH, and her therapy certification had expired, a key factor in her visiting privileges. For fairness to students and in consideration of Zoé’s age and capabilities, Leclercq decided to keep her at home from then on.
Despite this, Leclercq acknowledges that therapy dogs can be valuable and necessary components of communities, and may still find their way back to MPH in the future.
“I think in the future there’s a place for therapy animals, particularly a dog at MPH. A lot of other schools do it, and a lot of colleges in particular do it during times of final exams and things like this to relieve students’ stress,” he said. “So I think there is a future for it here.”