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What is the OPS Woof Pack program?

Okemos Public Schools is working to create a team of facility dogs who will enhance our learning community.  Our vision is to have a dog in each school by the 2025-26 school year to motivate, empower, connect, and provide comfort to students and staff alike.

Why do we want facility dogs in our schools?

Facility dogs, which are sometimes referred to as therapy dogs, support the district’s social/emotional and mental health goals.  Our dogs will work daily in the school buildings to assist students with mental health needs, de-escalate tense situations, contribute to positive school culture, and, on occasion, support other schools in times of crisis. 


We believe the Okemos “Woof Pack” will help reduce feelings of anxiety and depression in students and staff members.  This will lead to increases in attendance and increases in students’ and staff members’ positive associations with school, which will indirectly increase academic performance for all.  


Rates of anxiety and depression had already been increasing prior to the pandemic (“Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health,” CDC, March 2022; Stress in America 2020: A Mental Health Crisis, American Psychological Association, October 2020).  Recent studies by the CDC demonstrate the additional toll the pandemic has taken on well being and mental health through the Household Pulse Survey.   We see this playing out in our schools with increased student absences related to mental health issues, which has a direct impact on academic performance and positive social connection to school.  

When did OPS decide to build this program?

Melissa Samluk, OHS teacher, piloted the facility dog concept at OHS during the 2021-22 school year.  CeCe greeted students before and after school, visited both general and special education classrooms, and spent time in the counseling center.  


Student survey comments:


  • We love having CeCe around and feel she is a wonderful addition. I would support additional support dogs both in our school and around the district.


  • Although I have never interacted with CeCe, I see her with other students and it is clearly beneficial for them to be around her.


  • All though I don't interact with CeCe too much, she makes me happy when I see her so I would like more dogs around


  • It's absolutely amazing how CeCe can get students who never interact with anything to interact with her and she helps open that door to help create those relationships.


  • I am a senior so I have not really had a chance to interact with CeCe, but I have seen how happy she makes other students. And I believe that all that matters. <3

What are the staffing needs for this program?

The OPS Woof Pack will include:

  • Program Manager - District employee with release time/stipend to manage the program as it grows.

  • Handlers - District employees to live with, care for, and train dogs.  S

  • Dogs - Career is about 10 years, after which the dog lives permanently with its handler.

How is the district covering the costs of this program?

Handlers and the Program Manager will receive stipends from the district for the time they spend training the dogs and attending events outside of the school day.  Vet care, food, equipment, and other necessary expenses will be covered through donations from community partners.

What are the specific goals for a school dog?

Each school’s dog will be utilized by faculty, staff, and administration to promote an environment in which stress and anxiety levels can be decreased.  Having a therapy dog accessible to students provides them with an additional layer of support and can provide them with a way to manage stress.  The dog will be scheduled in classrooms and office areas each day.  

What kind of dogs become therapy dogs?

Any breed of dog can become a therapy dog.  They must be well-tempered, well-socialized, enjoy human touch, and be comfortable in busy or stressful situations.

What if my student’s allergies, fear, or culture prohibit them from being around dogs?

Students with allergies, fear of dogs, and/or cultural considerations may contact the building principal, a counselor, or the dog’s handler.  Their disclosure will be treated as confidential, and we will take the necessary steps to ensure that the student and dog are not in the same room.  Classrooms and other spaces will be designated as “dog- free zones” with clear signage.

Who gets to pet the dog?

All students are free to approach the dog.  The dog will not approach the students and will be leashed or in control of a handler at all times.

What’s the timeline for building the OPS Woof Pack?

Ideally, we will add two dogs to the pack per year.. This timeline is important to ensure that all of the dogs in the program don’t retire at the same time.  

How do we get the dogs, and who trains them?

Currently, we are working with Canines for Change, who have trained and placed facility dogs into local schools such as Grand Ledge Public Schools.  Each dog costs approximately $10,000, which includes training through the lifespan of the dog.  Our goal is to secure food and vet care through donations to support each dog during its years of service to the district.   


The support of our inaugural donors - Grewal Law and Delta Dental - has allowed us to purchase our first two dogs this summer.  Training and puppy visits to schools will begin in the fall.  Chip will work at Chippewa with Tracy Behan, while Willow and Molly Turner will team up at Okemos High School.  Willow joins CeCe (and Melissa Samluk) at OHS, doubling the size of their pack.  

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