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Pawsitive Peers program in Mesa Public Schools improves students’ mental health

The district is stepping up with a surprising solution to help improve student mental health.

MESA, Ariz. — Students at Mesa Public School District begged their school board and legislature for help. 

Even before the pandemic, students said they were struggling, and the past year has only increased stress and anxiety for many students. 

Now, the district is stepping up with a surprising solution to improve student mental health.   

Working in mental health care takes a lot of training.  

“We did a lot of work,” said Shelley Lickfeldt, special education teacher and owner of a sweet 3-year-old golden retriever named Bowie. “We did two years of pretty hard work and I think it’s really paid off.” 

For Bowie, that meant 6 weeks of obedience training, 6 weeks of therapy training and passing a national evaluation.  

“When I met Bowie, I was like this dog is absolutely cut out for this,” Lickfeldt said.  

Now, her training is paying off. 

“She’s very engaging, she’s very social, she’s very loving,” she said.  

Bowie is one of 40 certified therapy dogs Mesa Public Schools has at more than two dozen schools across the district. Her work is part of a program they call Pawsitive Peers. Through the program, the district is taking a different approach addressing student mental health.  

“We went and visited New York City,” said Tot Wallace, director of community education and outreach. “The largest school district in the United States has therapy dogs in the classroom and we worked with North Shore Animal League America and New York and Yale University… implementing the curriculums, it’s called Mutt-i-grees.”  

Wallace says since they first launched the program with just 5 dogs in 2019, they’ve seen results. 

“There’s a focus there on the social, emotional component of resiliency, self-awareness, social awareness that we incorporate with humane education and shelter animals,” Wallace said.  

“As soon as I’m looking at the door… I see a therapy dog and I’m like oh my goodness, oh my goodness, and then everyone else just changed their mood completely,” said Revan Cleveland, 7th grade.  

“You can be my girlfriend Bowie!” said Karrieon Wilson, 7th grade. “This therapy dog can help us with our temperament and how to keep cool… and sometimes it’s just nice to play with a dog.”  

Wallace says the program works well to de-escalate situations and reduce stress.  

“Some students are not comfortable talking about what’s going on with them, but the dog is a neutralizer,” she said. “You know, when you start talking to a student about a dog, then they begin to open up, they begin to relax.”  

“I had one student who specifically came up to me and said I have anxiety and I really want to sit and pet her for a while and so I said no problem anytime,” said Lickfeldt.  

“We have left no stone unturned to address students’ mental health, that is really our number one priority,” Wallace said.  

Therapy dogs like Bowie are obviously a popular addition to life on campus during the school day, but parents and students always have the option to opt-out of the program, due to allergies or other reasons.  

However, out of students at more than two dozen schools, so far, they haven’t had one exempt request.  

For more information about Pawsitive Peers, go to: http://www.mpsaz.org/dobson/pawsitivepeers/

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