Two very special dogs now call local high schools home.
Toby, an Australian shepherd and registered therapy dog, joined the staff at Pleasant Hill High School in August.
Michael D’Angelo, an Aussiechon puppy and companion dog, arrived at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic High School in Lee’s Summit as the “Director of Love and Hospitality” during the first semester as a part of new trend.
Within a short time, both Toby and Mike have become part of the daily lives of students and faculty at their respective schools. These new family members also have come to play vital roles at their school, contributing a special brand of joy to the learning environment.
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“St. Michael is a highly advanced, 21st-century learning setting,” St. Michael Principal Jodie Maddox said, “but we create intentional opportunities for students to also learn soft skills, and Mike is part of that.”
While bringing a huge fun factor to the school settings, both Mike and Toby also help students learn empathy, responsibility, caring, the joy of companionship, and more.
“It’s a unique and different experience,” Maddox said. “Students learn that dogs have feelings and they need to be respected. We can also teach intentional boundaries for behavior through Mike.”
Toby and Mike also work side-by-side with their schools’ counselors, bringing comfort to students who may be suffering anxiety, panic attacks, or other mental and emotional health challenges.
“Toby is really good at helping calm and comfort students,” said Jessica Janis, a counselor at Pleasant Hill. “He sits beside them and they pet him. His rhythmic breathing and the petting calms them until they are at the point where they can talk face-to-face.”
Jana Burns, a social worker and the director of community life at St. Michael, agreed that the dog’s presence — it’s steady panting, warmth, and the touch of its coats — are key elements in the care these dogs bring to students facing personal, academic, and other obstacles or challenges.
“Mike helps students with anxiety,” Burns said. “He curls up to them and gives them comfort.”
Trained and knowledgeable about the benefits therapy dogs can bring to the lives of students, Janis presented a proposal last summer to the district’s administrative staff to bring Toby on board at Pleasant Hill. Her proposal was approved in August.
“I knew he would be such a good addition for the students,” she said. “Mental health needs are increasing in our community and in our schools. The teen homicide rate has decreased, as the suicide rate has increased.
“Bringing in a therapy animal is really important, especially in these times. What they bring to the lives of special-needs students and those with mental-health issues is deep. Even this year, the mental-health needs have increased and any extra resource a school district can offer is a big benefit.”
Mike was actually the idea of a former student, Abby Hyde, at St. Michael.
Hyde, now a freshman at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., completed a senior project on the value of therapy dogs in schools.
“Abby’s legacy was opening the door with the idea for a therapy dog,” Maddox said.
As with Toby at Pleasant Hill, Mike wears many hats in his Caring K-9 role at St. Michael. He attends daily “Community Time,” where students from all grade levels come together, sans technology, to build relationships.
Maddox said, “The purpose of “Community Time” is to create community, to help students grow in virtue, and to build Christ-centered relationships. Technology doesn’t come to “Community Time,” but Mike is invited.”
Toby and Mike also are available for quieter, private get-togethers.
“Teachers who are having a rough day stop in and say they just need to hug Toby,” Janis said. “For students, Toby can take the stigma off of going into the counselor’s office.”
In addition, several students who attend the schools are dog lovers but do not have a dog at home.
“Mike gives them their dog fix,” Maddox said.
Janis and Maddox agree that their school dogs are also great conversation starters.
“Toby attracts children from all different ages and draws them together in a conversation that they may not have without his presence initiating it,” Janis said. “He’s also really good at starting conversations with special-needs students. They aren’t nervous around him. They take time to listen and speak. It’s very sweet and their nervousness abates.”
Toby himself is a special-needs dog. Shortly after Janis adopted him from Unleashed Pet Rescue and Adoption in Mission, Toby was diagnosed with vitiligo, a condition in which the skin and hair loses its pigment cells.
Vitiligo, which can effect other parts of the body, creates a wide range of symptoms.
During the past three years, Toby has lost all of his skin and fur pigment along with his eyesight.
Certified as a therapy dog through KC Pets for Life, Toby’s own disabilities have deepened his awareness of others in need.
“His own disabilities enhance his therapy abilities,” Janis said. “His other senses are more fully developed and he’s so sensitive. He knows when someone is upset and seeks them out, even though he cannot see.”
Both Toby and Mike attend the life-skills classes for the special-needs programs at their schools.
At St. Michael, Mike is receiving his puppy training, thanks to a partnership between peer mentors and students in the SMILE Zone. The goal is for Mike to become a full-time part of the program, Maddox said.
“Peer mentors are a huge part of the inclusive program,” Maddox said. “Without them, we could not offer this level of inclusiveness.”
Senior Mike Menne is one of St. Michael’s peer mentors and works with the school’s special-needs students to provide Mike the very best in puppy training.
“Every time the kids see Mike, they get really happy,” Menne said. “When they see him, he lifts their spirits.”
As he undergoes training, Mike is easing into student life, as well as navigating the large St. Michael’s campus, but he seems to be mastering both quickly.
Despite weighing barely three pounds, Mike already draws crowds like an “A-list” celebrity around the school.
Toby — who has his own Instagram account, @Toby_the_color_changing_dog — also is a luminary in his own right, boasting nearly 1,000 followers on social media and relishing the limelight.
“Toby lights up the school,” Janis said.