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Pittsfield School Committee OKs Comfort Dog Pilot Program
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
04:12AM / Thursday, January 27, 2022
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Molly the poodle appears at Wednesday's comfort dog presentation to the School Committee, which was broadcast on Pittsfield Community Television.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The School Committee has approved a comfort dog pilot program to support the well-being of students.

Through a partnership between Berkshire Poodles, Berkshire Dogs Unleashed, and the school district, one to three dogs will be deployed to select schools by springtime. If that goes well, there is a possibility to have a four-legged friend in every school.

The district's Health and Safety Coordinator Eric Lamoureaux and owner of both businesses Lee Kohlenberger presented a program overview to the committee on Wednesday.

Molly the poodle joined them to vouch for the importance of pups in schools. She didn't have to do much persuading, as the proposal was approved unanimously.

"I happen to believe that dogs have magical healing powers, so I really do support this," Mayor Linda Tyer said. "Especially at a time when we know that kids are struggling to readjust being back in school, for their social-emotional well being this is a way for them to find some comfort and friendship, and I just think it's really powerful."

Similar to the Pittsfield Police Department's Officer Winston — who was also donated by Berkshire Poodles — the comfort dogs will be owned by the city and will live with a handler.

Kohlenberger and his wife have also donated poodles to the Lenox Public School District and the Dalton Police Department. Comfort dogs are trained to be very calm, to lie quiet, and to sit to assist a person in emotional distress who is not a physical threat.

Kohlenberger shared that a selectively mute child spoke for the first time in three years while holding Teddy, Lenox's comfort dog.

"That's worth every donation, just helping one kid," he said.

Poodles are ideal candidates because they are hypoallergenic and thrive on mental stimulation rather than physical exercise, he added.

"Berkshire Poodles has been around breeding since 2010 and specifically looking at, as they raise the puppies, picking the right puppies for the program like this that go through that series of tests and then go through the training to specifically say, 'that's why we're picking these puppies, they're going to be what we're looking for,' and if they don't meet that, then they won't be part of the program,"  Lamoureaux said.

Berkshire Dogs Unleashed will provide medical care expenses, boarding, and grooming and the district will be responsible for about $500 to $600 a year for food. There is a possibility that a non-profit will be able to cover that expense.

Lamoureaux explained that two handlers would be ideal: a primary handler who assumes most of the responsibility and a secondary handler for backup.

The primary handler — and ideally the secondary handler — will go through 24 weeks of training from the American Kennel Club to ensure the pup is a good canine citizen and to obtain a therapy dog title.

District staff who are interested in becoming a handler will go through an interview process to determine the best fit. Lamoureaux cautioned that the title is much more than just having a dog.

"It really has to be somebody committed that is going to not only do all these hours, you're taking this dog into your home, you have to do the homework that comes with training each week," he explained.

"There is homework that's given, you're expected to do that so when you go back the next week, the dog is ready to go there."

Superintendent Joseph Curtis said that as the district works through the pilot program, it will develop policies and regulations to bring back to the committee for consideration.

Student representative William Garrity said that when Winston visited Taconic High School, students were excited and responded well.

"I believe adding this program to our schools will be extremely beneficial for our students," he said.

Vice Chair Daniel Elias did research on comfort dog programs after they became popular in the county and has found that it has a profound impact on students and adults.

"I've just seen so much positive data just coming from other areas, not just only for the students, but for the staff, the anxiety, the stress, making them feel more welcome," he explained.

"I think Winston has done an unbelievable job so far and I could only imagine what the possibilities for Pittsfield would be with it."

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