When crossing the wooden bridge at the entrance of The Wediko School, before long you’ll spot a jolly yellow Labrador trotting between the campus’ colorful buildings. He crosses the gravel paths with confidence, like he owns the place, though the reality is he only owns the hearts of everyone there.
Iden, Wediko’s facility dog, comes to work with Residential Director and handler Betsy Oswalt almost every day, and has become as much a member of the staff as she is. Youth admitted to the residential therapeutic program in Windsor, NH, arrive with severe socioemotional, behavioral and mental struggles – Iden’s job is to offer comfort and unconditional friendship during their time at school.
Studies over the years have shown that dogs possess the ability to improve one’s physical, mental and emotional health. By simply being in our presence, they can help us maintain a more positive perspective on life, calm our nervous systems and decrease stress, and above all, make us feel loved. Two programs at The Home, one being The Wediko School, are utilizing these doggie “superpowers” to support youth who struggle with a variety of complex challenges on a daily basis.
“Iden has no judgment and loves everyone; that’s exactly what our students need,” says Betsy. “He meets students where they are emotionally on any given day. When someone is angry, they deescalate immediately when they see him.”
Iden came to Wediko from Canine Companions, a national organization that provides service dogs at no cost to individuals with disabilities and facility dogs to professionals in health care, criminal justice and educational settings. Only 50% of the dogs in Canine Companions’ competitive program make it to Iden’s level, so it’s safe to say we have a pretty special pup on our team.
While Iden knows many commands, his greatest skill is being there when the students need him. Many students come from out of state to attend The Wediko School and have to leave their own dogs behind. Parents and students alike value that Iden will be at the ready to help fill that void and provide a sense of comfort, whether by sitting with anxious students during group therapy, tucking them in at night in their dorm or helping them carry packages back to their room in his mouth. On one occasion, Iden accompanied a nervous student to the hospital on an exceptionally challenging day. Staff struggled to get the young man to agree to go, but once he heard that Iden would be by his side, he complied.
According to Admissions Director Katie Walsh, Iden has been a source of warmth for the staff as well.
“Our staff have stressful jobs, but when Iden comes around, he makes everything feel lighter,” Katie says. “He makes a big difference during our toughest days and has become a huge part of the culture here.”
Back in Massachusetts at The Home’s Walpole campus, Opie, a nine-year-old chocolate lab serves as an emotional support animal—and local celebrity—to the students of Clifford Academy, and the young residents at Hailer and Merrill House. He’s not as sprightly as he once was, but Campus Director Rebecca Reed attests that he still takes his job very seriously, always making sure to meet his daily quota of hugs and pats.
Unlike Iden, Opie did not successfully graduate from his program. Shortly after his time in service training, he entered Rebecca’s life, and she quickly identified the opportunity to employ Opie and his sweet temperament at The Home, where he could help deescalate stressful situations and soothe overwhelmed students when other methods fell short.
“Opie is exactly like some of our kids in the fact that, at the end of the day, he just wants love from whoever can give it,” Rebecca says. “Opie doesn’t care what mood you were in the day before; he doesn’t care about your flaws. He will always show up and give our kids the same amount of love no matter what.”
On a typical day, Opie will curl up at Rebecca’s feet and wait for visitors. Students will come by to lie down with Opie, sometimes using that time to air their troubles or to simply take a break. Regardless of the topic of discussion, Opie listens. On slow afternoons when he decides he isn’t getting enough attention in the office, Opie will take matters into his own paws and meander down the halls to seek out someone who looks like they could use some four-legged company.
Having a dog at The Home’s Walpole campus has provided students the opportunity to gain confidence through giving Opie commands, walking him on his leash and seeing how, despite their struggles, they are worthy of his affection. These simple interactions with Opie are teaching moments that will go with them far beyond the school’s walls.
With September being National Service Dog Month, The Home celebrates Iden and Opie, and their irreplaceable contributions to the schools they serve. Let it be known that this compassionate, companionable pair are the true MVPs (Most Valuable Puppies) of our organization.