It's no secret that dogs make natural partners for humans. They are man’s best friend, after all. But it turns out they can serve as much more than just a friend. They can also be an educational tool, according to Chris Gross.
Gross, the Chief Empathy Officer at FabNewport, has made it his mission to introduce the concept of facility dogs to island schools.
“Everyone has different ways of communicating, and not one way is better than another. But to succeed in school, and sometimes in life, you need to communicate in these narrow ways,” Gross said.
“Dogs offer a reprieve from that because they communicate in unique ways by meeting people where they’re at.”
In promoting this, he’s brought his trusty sidekick, Nahly, a seven-year-old Golden Retriever, to various programmes with FabNewport at places like East Bay Met, the MLK Center and the Providence Public Library.
In a longer term programme, Gross – a native of Newport in Rhode Island, the United States – and Nahly have visited Linden Smith and Laura Caster’s classrooms for students on the autism spectrum at Thompson Middle School each Friday during the 2018-2019 school year.
“In school there’s fear of failure, going out of your risk zone socially, feeling dumb ... Dogs mitigate the average person’s fear of difference. A dog really helps to let people know it’s OK and to trust in the process,” Gross said. For example, a student can read to a dog without fear of judgement.
“Each week, when Nahly and Chris come for our group, the energy level in the class immediately decreases as soon as Nahly enters the room. The students know that Nahly needs a calm and quiet environment.
“They move slower and are much more deliberate with their movements and actions,” Caster wrote in a letter to the school administration. “The students in our programme, who may not interact much with others throughout the day, immediately gravitate to Nahly and speak to her. Nahly’s ability to non-verbally communicate with the students has helped them feel at ease and develop their confidence when communicating with each other.”
Nahly is a product of Gross’s mother’s non-profit, North Star Foundation based in Storrs, Connecticut. His mother, Patty Dobbs Gross, started the non-profit after seeing the success her son, Dan, who is on the autism spectrum, had with his own therapy dog.
North Star mainly places dogs with people on the autism spectrum but has also made other placements for more social and emotional reasons, like grief or anxiety.
“Because my mother’s been doing this for 20 years, she has a breeding programme. You choose the pick of the litter that’s the most calm and emotionally intelligent, and breed them. It’s natural evolution,” Gross said.
So, these dogs are quite literally born to do this job. Those genetics, coupled with socialisation, make for dogs like Nahly – calm, low energy, predictable and kind.
But Gross’s goal isn’t to get Nahly into every classroom on the island. He said that while placing dogs in families is beneficial, he wants to spread that love. “A facility dog can touch thousands of kids,” Gross said.
He wants to help schools get their own facility dogs from North Star and give them the resources to be successful in three phases. The first phase is comprised of bringing Nahly to the school, or other facility, to introduce the concept.
“Nahly can be the golden bridge to all of this, because really the only way to understand it is to see it happen,” Gross said.
They would then identify a person in the organisation to be the owner and handler of the facility dog. That person would get a puppy from Gross’s mother.
In the second phase, Gross and Nahly would still be a presence and would help to socialise and facilitate. And in the third phase, Gross hopes to just be a witness and collect data. He’d be a resource, but in a more hands-off manner.
“I think Newport has a unique opportunity because it’s so small,” Gross said. “How special would it be if Pell (Elementary School), Thompson and Rogers (High School) all had well-bred, socialised dogs, and when they get to the next school they meet that dog’s sibling? It would be magical.”
The Therapy Dogs for Education programme in Caster and Smith’s classrooms at Thompson wrapped up on a recent Friday with a lesson where the students reflected on the experience.
Among the feedback from students were: “Nahly gives me a comfortable feeling and I feel ready to learn”, “Nahly takes stress off everything happening in school”, and “She’s always calm next to people, and it’s good and relaxing for me”.
For Gross, this is a passion project. His hope is to grow this programme as referenced, in three phases, where it can become self-sustaining.
“You want to fix the climate in Newport public schools? This may not be the entire solution, but it could certainly be part of it. You can’t underestimate what this can do.” – Tribune News Service/Newport Daily News/Rachael Thatcher