A very furry freshman

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A rectangle of sunlight advances across the carpet beneath a southern-facing window inside the Brother Keefe, CFX, Academic Center. From the shadows thrown by a sprawling wraparound desk, a plump, cream-colored paw with jet black pads lengthens unhurriedly toward the warmth. The office is the weekday home of St. John's Prep school counselor Melanie Paresi, but the paw belongs to Dusty, the School's new, full-time campus comfort therapy dog. And trust us, this one-year-old pup's snuggleability factor befits a canine who's now patrolling what has to be the largest dog house on the North Shore.

Dusty is an English Cream Golden Retriever. He's 60-inches long, weighs 63 pounds and he's been going to school for most of his life. After all, he had to learn, well, how to go to school. That is, learn how to behave at St. John's in a manner that best benefits students, faculty, and staff.

But how did he get here? The big picture is uncomplicated. The emotional health and the spiritual well-being of students has long been a hallmark of a St. John's education. Prep students learn to think of wellness as applicable to all aspects of their lives: spiritual, intellectual, social, emotional, physical, and aesthetic. The debut of the School's 88,000 square foot Mahoney Wellness Center in 2017 greatly amplified opportunities for students to feel a part of the community, realize that we're all responsible for one another, and build upon the positive, inspiring a culture of kindness and respect on campus.

Dusty is simply an important extension of that mission. "You can see the way people are drawn to him," says Paresi, who along with her husband, Bart, is Dusty's owner and handler. "He's so calm. I've seen these boys come in -- kids I counsel and many whom I don't -- and just sit on the floor and pet him. He'll plop his head in their lap. I think it makes us and our role even more welcoming than it already is. My hope is that he invites conversation. Sometimes, when you want to talk about anything, you need a place to start. Dusty is a great place to start."

It doesn't hurt that reams of clinical research back the Prep's decision to bring a dog to school."When any person is anxious, then across the domains of wellness -- emotionally, physically, socially, spiritually -- they tend to constrict," says St. John's Wellness Director Steve Brown. "We see a limited number of possibilities, we see a limited number of resources, and we tend to overestimate threats. To counter that, we typically need to sort of feel expanded, which is usually marked by feelings of safety and security so we feel comfortable enough to take on those challenges, push our comfort zones, and ultimately become our best selves. Naturally, we can form connections with people, and that helps us form a buffer from anxiety, but other avenues can be things like art, nature, technology. Animals and service dogs can be an important part of that."

The boy's best friend

What began with a casual conversation last spring between Paresi and St. John's Prep Principal Keith Crowley got serious quickly. The school counselor made a few calls, did some research, and brought her pitch to the administration. Not only was there little deliberation, but the School also subsidized a significant portion of the Paresi's investment in becoming comfort dog owners and trainers. "We've invited comfort animals to campus in the past for our Wellness Fair and exam time," says Crowley. "The students have always responded so well to them. We, like schools across the country, have seen a rise in mental health challenges among adolescents. Seeing students in distress this past year and the role that comfort animals played in lifting them up made obvious that having one in-house would positively impact our community. As we continue to work to build a strong web of social-emotional support for our students, it was the right time to welcome Dusty to his new home."

In preparation for the new school year, Paresi and her charge rode from her Andover home to Walpole four days a week all summer to complete 150 hours of training, including environments like local parks, schools, libraries, the MBTA, and retail spaces like Home Depot, Whole Foods, and L.L. Bean. That training is conducted with Golden Opportunities for Independence (GOFI), a non-profit that breeds, raises, and trains service dogs. In addition to further training with GOFI, Dusty will also practice at St. John's and at home until he's passed his remaining certifications.

Back at St. John's, his impact has been immediate and one of good cheer. According to Brown, dogs' innately non-judgmental disposition allows people interacting with them to get outside of themselves and see emotional value in something else. Even the process of petting a dog and connecting and sharing touch with the animal could be transformative. "I think that's going to be huge over time," he says. "I think Dusty can create that incredible dynamic for so many kids on campus."