By Nance Ebert, Contributing Writer
Northborough – Most who attend middle school come with a backpack, stand on two legs and communicate in a language we easily understand. Coco and Molly, however, walk on four legs and have fur. They seem to be extremely popular among students, staff and parents. They are therapy dogs at the Robert E. Melican Middle School and they have had a positive impact among students and faculty.
The program was implemented last December with Assistant Principal Michelle Karb’s dog, Coco. Another therapy dog, Molly, was recently added. She belongs to one of the school’s guidance counselors, Julie Morancy. Both of these dogs were trained along with their owners and are certified therapy dogs.
“I got Coco two years ago as a rescue from Indiana,” Karb said. “This was soon after I had lost two dogs within about a six-month period. She really rescued us. We knew immediately that she was a great dog, despite some challenges. I knew that, together, we were meant to do something special like visit nursing homes together. When I mentioned it to our school principal, she suggested I bring her here to the school. That’s kind of how it started. We were certified last December as a team. I knew this would be another way to help support the students in so many ways.”
A service dog differs from a therapy dog as a therapy dog is trained with its owner as a team to go to hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities. There are no “special access” privileges like a service dog has under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).
“We are certified through an organization called Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc. They are based in Leeds, Massachusetts,” Kalb explained.
“The dogs need basic obedience before they are entered in to the therapy dog certification process. Coco and I went to basic obedience first for six weeks, which was great for us to work together. From there we took a therapy dog training class, which met once a week for an hour for six weeks. Some of that training was actually going to a nursing home.”
In December 2013, when Coco first started coming to the Melican School, she came once a week. Then it increased to twice weekly and then three times because there was such a need. Because this was a lot for one dog, as well as for Michelle Karb and her other responsibilities, Julie Morancy was encouraged to have her dog, Molly, certified as well. She had done a lot of work with Coco and her students so she was familiar with the program.
“We were certified at the end of this summer so now Molly has joined the school. Each dog is here twice a week, which is great for the students. The dogs help the students with stress and have a real calming effect. They make great ‘listeners’ and wonderful companions,” Morancy said.
When the dogs first came it was somewhat of a novelty. The students learned that the dogs are there for everyone and the benefits have been obvious. The dogs work with many students and staff members throughout the week, as a reward for students on behavior plans or individualized education plans (IEPs) or simply helping students having a bad day.
For seventh grade students Megan Keller and Olivia Lamy, they could not be happier that the dogs are in their school.
“Molly and Coco help you with everything and they give good kisses,” Keller said.
“They make you feel so comfortable and they are wicked funny,” Lamy added.
“It has been proven that there are many positive effects to being with a dog,” Karb noted. “Oxytocin increases, blood pressure is lowered, stress decreases and more. It’s so wonderful that this district supports this program. This is a great example of taking a chance on something innovative and seeing all the good