LENOX — Canine comfort and joy.
That’s the prescription to ease student and staff stress at the town’s two public schools, courtesy of a holiday season donation from Lee Kohlenberger. He’s the former Pittsfield firefighter who’s owns Berkshire Dogs Unleashed in Lenox, Berkshire Poodles in Pittsfield, and the forthcoming nonprofit corporation, Berkshire Comfort Dogs.
The School Committee unanimously voted to accept his gift to the town of two male standard poodle puppies “with service-quality” temperaments, who will report for duty Jan. 16 at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School and Morris Elementary School. The yet-to-be-named and trained therapy dogs were born three weeks ago.
The idea was presented to the committee Monday night by Amy Higgins, a school adjustment counselor at the middle and high school, with support from the administration team. She had been approached by Kohlenberger, said schools Superintendent Marc J. Gosselin Jr., who occasionally brings his standard poodle, four-month-old Lucy, to work.
Gosselin noted that quite a few districts statewide and nationally have adopted therapy dogs. Berkshire Hills, serving Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge is considering the idea.
A comfort or therapy dog is different from a bring-a-dog-to-work program, the superintendent noted.
“The benefit is not just for the students but also for our staff,” he said. “Sometimes, we’re quick to forget the psychological impact the trauma of living through a pandemic has, and some of [the staff] wrestle with their own anxiety coming to work. It’s a benefit all around for the school culture in both buildings.”
“Kids automatically love animals,” Higgins said. At her previous position in New Jersey, she brought her own dog to her school office.
“I’ve found therapeutically that the presence of the animal changed the culture of my office,” she said, “and made it a more approachable place, lowered students’ stress level immediately, and also gave students who were a little intimidated at first about counseling and the stigma, a reason to come in just to see the dog.”
Her comfort dog also was popular with the faculty, Higgins added.
She pointed out that U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has termed the current state of mental health among youth as a crisis. The Massachusetts School Counselors Association recently stated that schools are struggling to meet students’ emotional adjustment needs.
“This is a creative way, but it also hits many marks,” Higgins said. “It uplifts the community, school culture and helps students feel they can have a relationship with the dog that’s nonjudgmental, that teaches compassion and empathy, and is a mirror of how to treat another living being. It lowers aggression by students, who around a dog were completely different.”
After Kohlenberger left the Pittsfield Fire Department recently after 10 years of service, he said he prioritized placing comfort dogs in area police and fire departments. Pittsfield Police recently adopted comfort dogs for community outreach as well as for department morale. Dalton Police did the same.
Kohlenberger said his Berkshire Dogs Unleashed will cover all grooming, boarding and training to get the puppies ready to serve at each school. They will report for duty in one month while their 24 to 28 weeks of formal training continues.
“That whole time, they will serve as comfort dogs for the town,” he told the school board. Hilltown Veterinary Clinic in the town of Washington has offered to cover any expenses for all working dogs in the county, including comfort dogs, Kohlenberger added. The estimated $600 annual cost of dog food will be covered by his nonprofit by next summer for towns that can’t afford the expense.
Training for puppies is in several phases — socialization and then obeying basic commands, he said, because it’s important that the puppies are in school every day and going home with the handler since socialization at the comfort dog level is really the most important thing.”
The final three months of training are aimed at earning three levels of the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen badges for full qualification as a comfort dog at the age of one year. “It’s the icing on the cake” for a bond already formed with the handler, Kohlenberger said.
Since the Lenox schools’ comfort dogs will be owned by the town, they will be covered by town government’s liability insurance, Gosselin stated.
He also told the committee that there’s “a waiting list of employees at both schools who would love to serve as handlers and to board a therapy dog and then bring him to work.”
School Committee Vice Chair Veronica Fenton, owner of two poodles, noted that the hypoallergenic breed is “very smart and loving” and unlikely to cause an allergic reaction.