By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
The latest and littlest Mater Dei Knight spends her days winning hearts and soothing stressed souls.
CoCo, a 12-week-old chocolate Labrador retriever, comes to the Catholic high school daily with her human, Mater Dei’s counselor Tammy Carroll.
There, CoCo socializes with the kids and adults, providing pet therapy to anyone who needs it.
“She’s good for the kids – she’s good for all of us,” Carroll says. “It’s not just the students who sometimes need to be reminded that we are created to enjoy life – it’s all of us, myself included. CoCo has an infinite supply of unconditional love and offers a welcome respite from ‘the daily grind.’”
Carroll acquired CoCo from a breeder about a month ago, with an eye toward having her at school to provide assistance to kids who might benefit from pet therapy. The puppy is now in the process of undergoing training, not just in obedience, but in being out in public and interacting with the kids.
She’s learning focus, tolerance, patience, obedience, and manners, all of which will be required skills when she eventually is certified as a therapy dog.
CoCo stays with Carroll throughout the day, both in Carroll’s role as a counselor and in the classes she teaches. In the process, CoCo already has made friends throughout the building.
“There’s been the natural reaction to any dog – ‘Oh, she’s so cute!’” Carroll says. “Now that they’ve seen her here every day, they’ve come to appreciate and embrace the positive energy she brings to each person she greets.
“She’s very much a people dog; she truly thrives on giving – and receiving – love and attention.”
Therapy dogs are used in a variety of settings, including schools, nursing homes and hospitals, to provide comfort and stress relief.
The goal at Mater Dei is for CoCo to give kids room to relax a little.
“All of us suffer from stress at some point, some to the point of distress,” Carroll says. “Just having her here with us throughout the day is a way for us to create a climate that is perhaps a little less stressful – a culture that helps our students and staff experience more moments of happiness and calm. That’s something we sometimes forget to do whenever we are busy meeting the overwhelming challenges of each day.”
For some students, the benefits go deeper. Students who are encountering more stress and difficulty can interact with CoCo while they meet with Carroll. They are allowed some one-on-one time with the therapy dog. “I have a student who walks CoCo every day for 10-15 minutes, helping to create a smooth transition from home to school,” she says. “This simple activity gets him, and CoCo, off to a great start each day.”
She says the benefits can be particularly strong for kids who struggle to fit in. “CoCo helps these students feel happier about coming to school each day,” Carroll says. “It’s amazing for me to watch her touch their hearts and their spirits without using words. That’s what I love most about having CoCo here with us. That’s her job.”
Carroll credits Mater Dei’s principal, Dennis Litteken, with allowing her to bring CoCo to school.
“He’s always open to anything that helps our kids,” she says. “Anything that helps them feel like Mater Dei is their home.”
And she believes that the result is good for students, teachers and other staff at the school.
“To a dog, everything is wonderful, life is something to be cherished and embraced every single moment of the day,’ she says. “CoCo is thrilled to chase a piece of paper across the room.
“When you look at CoCo, you automatically notice that she has this feeling that life is good, that life is a gift, that life is sweet and meant to be lived with joy. CoCo reminds us of these important lessons, even in the midst of the struggles we encounter every day,” Carroll says. “That’s CoCo’s main job here.”