CALUMET, Mich. (WJMN) – What started as a visit for Principal Joel Asiala’s dog Tucker to Horizons Alternative School has become an important fixture at Public Schools of Calumet-Laurium-Keweenaw (CLK). Following the positive response to the visits, Aspirus Health helped to train Tucker as a therapy dog.

Now a few years later, therapy dogs are in the building on a regular basis at CLK’s Horizons Alternative, Elementary, and Washington Middle School where Asiala now serves as principal.

“Blue and Tucker are here just about every day. And they start in the morning. When I tell them they’re going to school, they jump in the car,” Asiala said. “They’re excited to get here, and they kind of wander the halls and kind of interact with the kids as they go. And throughout the day that’s what they do. When the bell rings, they sprint out in the hallways and they’ll mingle with the kids. And then over time, they go in the classrooms. As I’m walking around, Tucker will walk around or Blue will walk around with me. They go into classrooms and sometimes I’ll leave and they’ll stay in the classrooms. Other times they’ll come to the office. Kind of depends on where the action is, and who really needs help.”

The dogs have quickly been embraced by students and staff alike as a useful tool to benefit mental health within the district.

“A lot of the teachers will come down if they’re having a tough time, a kid is having a tough time,” Asiala said. “The teacher will come pick up the dog and bring it to the classroom or a student will come in and pick a dog and bring into the classroom. So it’s been really neat to see that how the therapy dogs will go in and out of the classrooms. And if they’re not needed that day, they’ll sit in the office and kind of sleep or just walk the hallways.”

Principal Asiala’s piloting of the project has solicited a lot of positive feedback, even recently earning him spotlight in a recent episode of Michigan Virtual’s BRIGHT podcast.

“They help kids that don’t really know what’s going on, and they calm kids down,” said Jett Stites, a student at Washington Middle School. “And it’s really interesting and it’s a different experience because a lot of schools don’t have dogs, and it’s just not comfortable.”

By focusing on improving and benefitting student mental health, Asiala hopes the program can create lasting positive effects on mental health within the entire community.

“So a lot of our local schools are starting to look at getting therapy dogs, and it’s been a very positive interaction. You know, we talk a lot lately, especially lately, what’s going on in the news,” Asiala said. “We talk a lot about social-emotional health and how that’s so important. And we’re focusing on social-emotional health to help our kids. If you look at the statistics, suicide rate is climbing, drug addiction is climbing in our area, we have all these things climbing in the area. We need to pay attention to social-emotional health and this is a big part of it. A therapy dog being able to sit down and comfort a student is a big part of it.”

If you’re interested in starting a similar program at another school, check out Michigan Virtual’s 3-step guide to starting a therapy dog program at your school.