Wilton resident and Middlebrook School principal Lauren Feltz is spearheading an effort to bring therapy dogs into the Wilton School District. Just after spring break, Middlebrook students were welcomed back with a special introduction to Cricket, one of two female standard poodle puppies that Feltz and her family are in the process of training to work at Wilton’s middle school.

“We are trying to build a model for other schools, even schools outside of the Wilton district,” the principal says. “Therapy dogs that are owned by a school or staff member are an emerging concept as educators strive to meet the needs of all their students.”

Her professional interest was also backed by personal experience. Lauren is an aunt and caregiver for a nephew with special needs, and she and her sister, Maggie Feltz, have done extensive research to find alternative therapy methods.

“My son, Kiernan, is on the autism spectrum. For years Lauren and I were exploring ways to support him and looking at non-traditional things like music therapy and working with therapy dogs,” Maggie explains.

About a year ago they discovered North Star Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help children who face social, emotional, or educational challenges with the help of animal assisted therapy, school visits, and assistance dog placements. Since its incorporation in 2000, North Star Foundation has created over 300 assistance dog partnerships with children all over the world.

“When I discovered North Star Foundation we got serious,” Maggie continues. “Originally the idea was to get a dog to work with Kiernan but Lauren suggested we consider getting two puppies.”

Lauren has wanted to raise a therapy dog for a long time, dating back to her days as a classroom teacher.

“I believe having therapy dogs in schools is very good for the kids. The benefit of having two dogs working together is that they draw comfort and confidence from each other,” she says, noting the other benefit of having two working dogs is a shared, alternating shift workload, making it possible to have at least one dog at work throughout the day.

Some models limit therapy dog work to the school library to provide comfort and serve as non-judgmental listeners for children who have difficulty with reading; while that’s important work, as principal, Lauren would like to see the dogs work on a broader, more expanded scale at Middlebrook.

“I’d like a fairly balanced diet of the dogs working with various levels of special needs, including kids that could be processing trauma, experiencing school avoidance or engaging in self harm. The important part of working on social emotional behavior and social emotional needs is to work with the kids before they become critical. But I also want dogs in the classroom working with the general student population and I’d love to get to a point where the dogs are out greeting kids in the morning and out and about and available a couple of times a day,” she says.

Middlebrook’s Dogs-in-Training, Cricket and Clover

Cricket and Clover are from the same litter and were bred for temperament and physical soundness by Puddle Jumper Puppies. The Feltz family opted to work with poodles because they are hypoallergenic, something that must be taken into account when introducing dogs into a school setting or other public spaces.

The duo is in training with the North Star Foundation and the difference in the puppies’ personalities will meet the varying needs of the students.

“Clover is more person-focused, more snuggly and great with autistic children and kids processing trauma. Cricket is more bold and inclined to be working with and meeting the masses,” Lauren says.

The full training process takes about two years and includes intense and varied socialization experiences followed by formal training. At nearly seven months old now, the puppies are in the socialization stage of training, which includes being socialized in their puppy raising homes, with staff and students at Middlebrook School, and traveling to a specialized poodle training home in Philadelphia.

Because the training program is personalized, there is no set timeline but is based instead on how the dogs progress. Lauren anticipates that both Cricket and Clover will be ready to begin working regularly when students return to school in September.

“I have been delighted by how seamlessly the dogs and humans, both adults and students, have already begun their work together. It seems to be the most natural thing in the world and students are having wonderful reactions to their time with Cricket,” she says.

Maggie echoes her sister’s sentiments. “It’s been interesting to see Kiernan’s interactions. While he was certainly interested in the dogs when he first met them he was somewhat scared. Now he will tell you, ‘Clover is my dog!’ He realizes how much the dogs mean to him. And I love the idea of him being able to introduce the dogs to the world that way.”

Initially, finding puppy-raising homes for the puppies before they were ready to begin at Middlebrook was the biggest hurdle. Now, however there are more interested families than can be accommodated, creating an invaluable network for any schools that try to follow the developing model. Wilton residents who are interested in serving as puppy raising homes are encouraged to contact Patty Dobbs at the North Star Foundation.

If you are interested in supporting the Feltz family’s work, please consider donating an item from their online wish list.