Local school adopts a comfort dog

Middle School 343 principal Vincent Gassetto with Buttons. Photo: Sarah Matusek.

M.S. 343 introduces new pooch to help students learn—and relax

For students at M.S. 343 on Brook Avenue, a visit to the principal’s office is a treat. Principal Vincent Gassetto’s headquarters is where they’ll find Buttons, a tan terrier mix puppy nestled on a blue plaid dog bed.

The pup’s been brightening up the office since September, waiting for his debut as the school’s comfort dog this fall.

When middle school math teacher Deb Barnum takes Buttons out to the school courtyard, students sprint to see him. “They all know about him. They’re all very excited about him, so they sneak ways to come see him right now,” said Barnum, who volunteered to adopt Buttons for the program in August.

M.S. 343, the Academy of Applied Mathematics and Technology—along with four other Bronx schools—has joined year two of the Department of Education’s Comfort Dog program. In nearly 40 classrooms citywide, rescue animals like Buttons are screened at Long Island’s North Shore Animal League America (NSALA) shelter, then adopted and housed by a school staff member for the purpose of enhancing social-emotional learning.

“A comfort dog is a counseling support,” said Jaye Murray, Executive Director of the Office of Counseling Support Programs, in a DOE statement. “They possess the two most important qualities of an effective social worker or counselor—unconditional acceptance and warmth.”

Principal Gassetto, who adopted a rescue dog from NSALA out of college, expects to integrate Buttons by early November—first into mandated counseling sessions before branching into other programs. As a Single Sheperd School in district 7, M.S. 343 has two social workers and one counselor to support a student body of 300. Gassetto also hopes the care-giving canine will inspire responsible pet ownership, help de-escalate crises and discourage students from skipping school.

M.S. 343 is approaching the new program methodically to avoid overwhelming the animal, students or parents with the new arrangement.

Buttons has begun a series of five behavior-based training sessions and a school visit led by NSALA in partnership with the DOE. M.S. 343 will receive additional trainings on NSALA’s Mutt-i-Gree curriculum, which offers lesson plans and guidance on how to incorporate the comfort dog into classrooms.

Some parents still need time to digest the idea of a dog at school, said Gassetto, though the overwhelming majority of signed parental consent forms confirms support for the program..

“As long as it doesn’t bite my kids, I’m good,” said Rafael Melendez while waiting to pick up his seventh and eighth graders from the school. Melendez considered that some kids might be scared of dogs, but not his—they love taking care of the family Maltese and Yorkie.

Joset Vasquez, a mother of a sixth grader, sees both sides of the issue. “I kind of think it’s a good idea because some kids don’t have pets,” she said. “It might be therapeutic.” The flipside: “I think it’s a bad idea because it could be a distraction.”

11-year-old Emily loves dogs and used to have one of her own, which she would feed. She said the school has already been coaching the students on how to behave around Buttons.

14-year-old student Alex, on the other hand, has declined interacting with the comfort dog. He’s had off-putting encounters with one that barks at him when he visits a friend’s house.

“I feel mistreated,” said Alex about the barking, before reconsidering with a smile. “Well, it’s natural for a dog.”

To familiarize himself with the school building, Buttons gets to roam free some days after school. When on break from lessons, Buttons will return to his dog bed in Gassetto’s office, and continue to head home each day with Barnum.

At P.S. 176X, a school that serves students with disabilities, Izzy, a 2-year-old comfort Beagle, is back for her second year.

Izzy’s owner, special education teacher Trae Schlesinger, teaches third through fifth grade at the school. He introduced Izzy to the school’s 153 site last year before transferring to 176 this year. “She’s my little sidekick,” he wrote in an email, praising her. “Wherever I go, she follows.”

P.S. 176X regularly involves Izzy for lessons on responsibility, social awareness and empathy, which can be abstract themes for children on the spectrum. Yet Principal John Siracuse has found that asking the students to consider the dog’s comfort—“If I’m loud, would that hurt Izzy’s ears?”—has been an effective approach to teaching these sensibilities. Siracuse said he’s witnessed major growth in students’ social and language skills.

“The kids love the dog. They’re so inquisitive, they’re so interested in just being around her,” said Siracuse, adding that parents have fallen for the pooch, too. “We’ve had several kids who got dogs for Christmas last year as a result of having this dog.”