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BY LEVAR ALONZO
Don’t call him a mascot — he’s a fully certified “Comfort Dog” on the staff of Lower Manhattan Community Middle School.
Bruno, a tawny, 7-month-old pug and beagle mix, came to the Downtown school a few months ago in a pilot program to bring canine counselors into public schools to ease stress, de-escalate tensions and generally brighten people’s day as only a gregarious four-legged furball can.
Based on the success of Bruno and his fellow para-pooch-fessionals, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña came to the Fidi middle school on Sept. 26 to meet Bruno and announce the expansion the city’s Comfort Dog program from the seven original schools last year, 40 schools citywide.
“The Comfort Dog program brings a smile to students and staff on a challenging day, helps to de-escalate issues, and can even provide bereavement support,” said Fariña.
At the start of the pilot program, when LMCMS guidance counselor Seth Kritzman broached the idea of having a comfort dog in the school, he said Principal Kelly Mcguire jumped at the opportunity to adopt the adorable pup.
The DOE works carefully the North Shore Animal League to selects rescue animals that will work well with kids, and Bruno was clearly an excellent pick, said Kritzman
“Bruno is bit of a celebrity in the school, staff stop by just to pet him or say hello,” said Kritzman. “But most importantly, right now Bruno currently helps out with speech therapy and counseling.”
Bruno comes to the school about two days a week, according to Kritzman, and specializes in working with a few particular students who have social anxiety to help them settle into their classroom.
“The students have trouble going into the their classroom, but once Bruno is there in the room, the students settle right in and Bruno leaves,” said Kritzman.
The program was created mainly to give school counselors an additional resource to reach children who can be resistant to conventional person-to-person methods.
“A comfort dog is a counseling support,” said Jaye Murray, Executive Director of the DOE’s Office of Counseling Support Programs. “They possess the two most important qualities of an effective social worker or counselor — unconditional acceptance and warmth.”
The interacting with the silent canine counselors can help emotionally guarded at-risk students feel more open to discussion and help. The doe-eyed dogs can defuse high emotions during crisis interventions, and offer non-judgemental empathy in grief counseling.
But the dogs don’t just take care to the students. Schools in the program also use a free curriculum called “Mutt-i-Gree” — after a term coined the dignify the non-pedigree mutts that make up the majority of shelter rescues — which teaches kids how to care for the dogs and develop empathy for other creatures and people, and shows them how these skills can be useful in later life.
“According to school officials, the Comfort Dog program’s approach to learning provides students with life skills critical to their success in the classroom and beyond,” said Fariña. “We know students need academic and social-emotional supports to succeed in the classroom and beyond, and comfort dogs are helping nearly 40 schools strengthen their culture and build stronger relationships.”
LMCMS’s canine counselor is already a well-established pillar of the school, and sounds like he could be well on his way to becoming prom king.
“Bruno has already become an essential member of our school community,” said Prinicpal McGuire. “Whether he is greeting students in the morning, Bruno is a relationship builder, an effective part of our counseling services, and an adorable addition to our school.”
Kritzman said the school has plans to get Bruno involved in more school programs as time goes on. The parent-teacher association has given its support of letting Bruno roam the halls on his own. The school even has an online schedule for the pup so school staff can see when he needs to go outside for a bathroom break.
No word yet of when Bruno can expect a varsity letter jacket.