Campus Dogs Enrich Culture Through Daily Interactions

August 17, 2021

During the course of the Coronavirus pandemic, Social Worker Remi Levinson welcomed a rescue dog into her life. In time and after a thorough application process with all requirements met, Gus was approved to accompany Remi to work at Green Chimneys. Each week Remi leads a social-emotional group therapy session with Green Chimneys School students, and Gus began to attend. At first, it was easy for both the class and Gus to get overly excited. Eventually, the learning became mutual. To help the pup become acquainted with life on campus, students were asked to ignore Gus when he entered the room. As a result, students became mindful of their own voices and energy levels. Gus did not get overstimulated. And the class discovered a lot about Gus’ body language while striving to build positive relationships with him.

Purposeful incorporation of canines

Gus is one of nearly 20 canines that are a part of the Green Chimneys community. Belonging to staff and referred to as “Campus Dogs,” these canines can be seen on the Brewster and Clearpool campuses as well as at satellite locations including points of service for Community-Based Services in Putnam County and a program for adults in nearby Danbury, Connecticut. The main intention of integrating canines throughout the organization is to provide those we serve with additional ways to benefit from animal interactions.

“This has become a great lesson in relationship-building for our students. Relationships aren’t built overnight, and students are experiencing the process slowly with Gus,” explains Remi. “It also supports our ongoing conversation regarding mindfulness and paying attention to the here and now.”

Gus is a part of weekly group therapy sessions led by Social Worker Remi Levinson.

Animal interactions that are familiar and accessible

While our farm animals, horses, and birds of prey provide significant therapeutic and educational opportunities for children with special needs, most of our students have not experienced these types of animals at home. Dogs provide a certain amount of familiarity to both children and adults and can be a great conversation starter. Campus Dogs can go into dorms, classrooms, offices, and other spaces that are not always accessible or appropriate for our resident animals.

“I have worked with students and many different kinds of animals over the years, and there is something special about dogs – they seem to provide a different kind of comfort,” explains Farm Program Manager Maureen Doherty. She also facilitates the Campus Dog program.

Campus Dogs participate in a wide range of program areas, including our special education school, residential treatment center, clinical services, and more. A committee of Green Chimneys staff, including animal experts, educators and clinicians, carefully screen all Campus Dog applications. Ensuring the types and number of interactions with students are appropriate for each canine is also important.

Helping students establish friendships and confidence

Visiting Lena and petting her can be a comforting break from the classroom.

It is difficult for some Green Chimneys School students to connect with peers and/or adults. To build and maintain friendships can be a daily challenge and this impacts how students can feel about themselves and others. Green Chimneys Social Worker Amber Immerblum brings poodle Lena to the Clearpool campus twice a week. “Lena empowers many of the students so they can have confidence to interact with others and learn how to be positive and use clear communication skills,” explains Amber. Lena and many of the Campus Dogs can be buffer or act as conversation piece between students and their peers.

Spending downtime in the dorms

Piper spends time with students in the dorms.

Piper’s big personality may come in an ultra-compact size, but her upbeat energy gets everyone’s attention. Primarily spending time in the dorms, Piper escorts Residential Administrator Danielle Kelleher to work. Piper’s petite size is less imposing for younger students, many of whom love petting her soft coat. Older students enjoy taking her for walks in the evenings and assume the responsibility freely. “I think Piper is really therapeutic and helps me calm down,” explains 16-year-old student Jeremiah. “She’s there when I need her. She’s beautiful and brings me great vibes.”

More than a work perk

Some may assume that being permitted to take your dog to work is a privilege, but those with a Campus Dog at Green Chimneys have actively taken on additional responsibilities. Our dedicated committee follows up with staff and their dogs to ensure that the canines are not becoming stressed or in need of a different activity. The committee also revisits if our youth are continuing to benefit from their presence. We truly appreciate the dedication of staff for making Campus Dogs another living, breathing example of how interactions with animals can help children forge friendship, build skills, and experience success.

Learn about our approach

For over seven decades Green Chimneys has incorporated animals and nature into educational and therapeutic programs for children. Explore why we do what we do