Therapy dogs help Richmond-Burton students, next stop Nippersink Middle School

Golden retriever Achie and his parent, Kristine Porreca, were among the therapy dogs at Richmond-Burton High School on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. The therapy dogs accept pets and scratches from students looking for solace following the death of a classmate last week.

It is almost “a magical thing” when otherwise grumpy teenagers see Archie walking through their high school hallways.

Their faces light up with smiles when Archie walks in, Kristine Porreca said.

Archie is a 7-year-old golden retriever trained as a therapy dog. He joined Porreca and two other dogs at Richmond-Burton High School on Monday, offering pets, snuggles and tail wags to any student in need of comfort.

They were there to help students struggling with the unexpected death of a classmate last week. Principal Mike Baird sent an email to parents Wednesday morning informing the school community of the death, but Monday was the first day of classes following winter break.

Benny was one of three therapy dogs at Richmond-Burton High School on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. The therapy dogs accept pets and scratches from students looking for solace following the death of a classmate last week..

Archie and Porreca are also set to go into Nippersink Middle School Tuesday. The student who died has a younger sibling who attends classes there.

Porreca, of Spring Grove, reached out to Richmond-Burton High School District 157, and Nippersink School District 2, offering the therapy dog service, Baird said this week. She and Archie work with Barrington-based SOUL Harbour Ranch.

“The dogs are not going to ask them questions. Their only purpose is to make them feel better. That is it.”

—  Mike Baird, Richmond-Burton High School principal

“She has a student that attends Richmond-Burton and is also one of our registered pet parents” with their animal assisted crisis response team, SOUL Harbour president Jodie Diegel said.

The dogs provide “an opportunity for the students to grieve in a safe area with peace and calmness,” Diegel said.

“I hear the kids as they walk away” from spending time with Archie, Porreca said. “They say they feel so much better now or, ‘I was sad and this made my day.’”

She and the team from SOUL Harbour usually take the dogs to nursing homes, libraries and hospice centers, Porreca said. Because the headquarters are in Barrington, they often go into that community’s schools during stressful times - such as finals week.

“The grumpiest-looking teenager will just smile” when they get to pet Archie and the other therapy dogs, she added.

Schools often offer crisis counselors after tragedy, Baird said, but therapy dogs are different. Instead of having to answer questions or voice their concerns, the dogs don’t need them to talk.

“The kids are not sure how to react, or the questions to ask. The dogs are not going to ask them questions. Their only purpose is to make them feel better. That is it,” Baird said.

He estimated that 30% of the student body found time in the two-hour window to spend time with the dogs. That, he said, was 10-times higher than the number of students who seek out grief counselors.