Dog helps detect stress levels in students

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Most parents will testify to the pressure our children come under whether at school, college or University. This may be borne out of bullying, unrequited love or exam time. Sadly, this pressure can become all too much for some students leading depression, drink, drugs and in some extreme cases – suicide or shootings.

So, one school in the United States has come up with a novel way of helping diffuse the tension with a little help from a four-legged friend.

Many students at The Calais School in New Jersey are on the autism spectrum; some have attention deficit disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and other challenges that can trigger anxiety and other difficult emotions. That’s why an 18-month old Rhodesian Ridgeback called Cali has been recruited to help students stay calm.

Cali has been trained to detect cortisol, the stress hormone our adrenal glands secrete when we become anxious or stressed. Each morning, Cali sniffs the students as they pass through the doors to school. Cali’s handler, Casey Butler says: “If a student’s cortisol levels are high, they spend time talking with me and Cali to help defuse the stress. The children feel safer with Cali around; they open up more.”

Cali has been specially trained to present subtle signals when she detects stress, pointing with her nose and staring at the child.

David Leitner, the Executive Director of Calais School says: “Some schools with a special-needs population have service dogs that visit and work with the students as a ‘once-in-a-while’ activity. We thought having a service dog on staff would benefit our students.”

And the teachers agree, citing a significant improvement since Cali has been on the scene. One example given took place just a few weeks ago. Cali started pacing in her handler’s office, alternately moving toward the door and nudging Casey. She says: “Cali led me up one flight of stairs to the opposite end of the building, where we found a girl starting to have a meltdown. The student spotted Cali and asked if she could pet her. I told her not yet. As I wanted to make sure Cali was safe. Within a few minutes of seeing Cali, the student calmed down.” Casey will then reward students by letting them pet, brush and, sometimes, walk Cali.

One of the students said of Cali: “She helps us cope with our problems so that we don’t have to get through it by ourselves.”

Nicholas Dodman, Director of the Animal Behaviour Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University says: “It’s their uncanny sense of smell that allows dogs like Cali to detect rising cortisol levels in our sweat or breath, and identify a student having trouble even in a faraway classroom. Humans have 12 million smell receptors in their nose. At the lowest estimate, dogs have 800 million. Scent hounds like Beagles and Bassets have up to four billion. A dog’s ability to smell odours is beyond our comprehension. That is why dogs are used to detect melanomas, diabetes and other types of disease. It’s all about the sense of smell.”

And school wouldn’t be school without a few students wanting to miss a class by feigning illness. However, Cali can also detect that too! Her handler says: “It’s not uncommon for a student to want to miss a class or a test, so I’ve had students come into my office saying they don’t feel well. If Cali doesn’t signal when she sniffs them, I send them back to the classroom.”

The results with Cali have been so encouraging, that in a few weeks time a second service dog, a Beagle called Cleo will join the team. Her role will be as an occupational and speech therapy dog, helping students to improve their fine motor skills by opening and closing the buttons and snaps on her harness, and practicing their oral and social skills by reading to her.

As a nation of dog lovers, I am sure many British students and teachers would welcome a little help from our canine companions!

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