Comforting grieving students, calming test anxiety and offering cuddles is all in a day’s work for Licking Heights’ most adorable new staff member, five-year-old Golden Retriever Ollie.
A licensed therapy dog, Ollie provides support to students dealing with depression, anxiety, grief or who just need a little puppy love. He belongs to retired Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools teacher Pam Rippl, the mother of Amber Krouse, school counselor at Central.
Rippl says she started training therapy dogs as a passion project after she retired. Inspired by a documentary about therapy dogs in the prison system, she first trained her Golden Retriever named Hank because of his natural compassion.
Hank had a successful five-year career as Central’s therapy dog, where he worked with at-risk students, grieving students and mediated behavioral issues. Now, he enjoys a retirement of his own with plenty of treats, toys and friends.
Both Krouse and Rippl say the impacts of Hank on student mental and emotional health were incredible. With his compassion and skill for sensing emotions, he helped students make friends, overcome behavioral challenges and improve their grades. They want Ollie to do the same, especially with current trends in student mental wellness.
Krouse is entering her 17th year as a school counselor. As students adjust after nearly three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, she says she sees an overall increase in anxiety, depression and overall mental health needs among students. Her students say that just having Ollie around helps with daily stressors like tests and grades.
“We’re trying hard to find outside resources to bring into the school to help. Ollie is just another way to bring comfort and mental help to students,” Krouse says. “I feel like this district is starting to focus more on mental health and what’s important, and how we can help kids more than anything with anxiety and depression.”
In the future, Krouse hopes Ollie can be a reward for students in the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) system that Licking Heights uses for student behavior. Other potential plans include involving Ollie with Grief Group, a partnership with OhioHealth to serve students who have experienced loss, and Girls in Progress, a partnership with Mental Health America of Licking County.
“Licking Heights is on the cutting edge of using therapy dogs for student mental health,” Rippl says. “I appreciate the opportunity to bring in Ollie.”
Being a therapy dog is no easy feat–it requires self-control and diligence for dogs to behave calmly in high-stress, emotional situations and offer students the support they need. Rippl says she learned while training Hank that one hour of work for a therapy dog is the energy equivalent of running eight miles.
Ollie knows how to unwind, though. Outside of work, he likes to chew bones, play with toys and go for long walks. Despite being on his best behavior at school, Rippl says he is known to steal shoes and get “the crazies,” which is what she calls his runs around the backyard.