(Reuters) - When distressed students at Middle School 88 in Brooklyn end up in the principal’s office, Petey Parker often totters over, tail wagging, to comfort them.
The rescued Shih Tzu mix is the darling of some 1,400 students who call out his name and lean over to pet him as he walks the corridors.
“He’s like a guidance counselor but in a dog form,” said Maciel, an 8th grader at MS 88, donning a Principal’s council t-shirt with an image of Petey’s face printed on it.
Petey joined the MS 88 community last December as one of the first participants in the Comfort Dog program, which is expanding to 30 more New York schools this fall after a pilot of just seven last year.
“It is amazing to me that one dog can bring empathy and serve as a comfort for close to 1,400 students,” MS 88 Principal Ailene Altman Mitchell said. “He’s king of this castle.”
The initiative, led by Chancellor Carmen Fariña of the New York City Department of Education, brings rescue dogs into the classroom to promote social emotional learning.
New York City’s Comfort Dog program is based on the Mutt-i-grees curriculum, which was developed by Yale researchers in partnership with North Shore Animal League America and aims to integrate rescue dogs into classroom lessons on empathy, resilience and conflict resolution.
“When a child is upset and a teacher calls me and I walk in with Jeter, the focus is immediately on the dog,” said Toni Frear, counselor at Fenton Charter Academy in Los Angeles and owner of Jeter. “He’s become my co-counselor.”
Frear’s school was one of the first in the country to implement the Mutt-i-grees curriculum and adopt a rescue dog in 2010.
The New York City schools chosen by the Department of Education for the Comfort Dog program will join over 4,000 schools across the United States and Canada that have implemented various versions of the Mutt-i-grees curriculum.
Not all schools have full-time classroom pets, but many bring in shelter pets or use images of dogs to teach social skills.
The impact that the daily presence of a dog can have on children’s social and emotional skills lacks a quantitative research base. According to Matia Finn-Stevenson, a developer of the Mutt-i-grees curriculum at Yale, most of the scientific support for having dogs in schools is anecdotal.
Finn-Stevenson said that while more rigorous studies are being conducted on dogs’ presence in schools, much like the case of therapy dogs, the practice is far ahead of the research.
The MS 88 principal said Petey has had particular effect on students with special needs and disabilities, including those in wheelchairs.
“They can’t walk and they can’t run down the halls but they can hug. And when Petey goes in your lap, magic happens,” Mitchell said.
Reporting By Gabriella Borter; editing by Diane Craft