Therapy dogs changed the culture of mental health in this Central Valley district

Credit: Kristy Rangel Four-year old Scout and 12-year old Jeter are cockapoos who serve the…

Therapy dogs changed the culture of mental health in this Central Valley district
Therapy dogs changed the culture of mental health in this Central Valley district

Credit: Kristy Rangel

Four-year old Scout and 12-year old Jeter are cockapoos who serve the Selma Unified School District as therapy dogs.

If students at Selma High School in Fresno County ever had to vote on their favorite things on campus, Jeter and Scout – two cockapoos – serving as Selma Unified’s therapy dogs, would be the top picks.

Since 2016, 12-year-old Jeter and 4-year-old Scout (since 2021) have played a lead role in the district’s push to destigmatize mental health issues and provide services.

They are on campus every day; during lunch, they go from table to table, interacting with students, but they seem to know where they’re needed most: the students who are sitting alone or who seem sad.

One day at lunch, as Jeter made his rounds, he gravitated to a student who had her hood over her head and just sat there with the student, refusing to leave, even when lunch ended.

Credit: Kristy Rangel

Students at Wilson Elementary participated in mental health awareness activities on Wednesday. Students are seen trying ’80s toys that can be used as coping mechanisms.

The district’s mental health team approached the student and Jeter and noticed that the student’s face was covered with tears and that she was distraught but did not feel comfortable confiding in anyone. Jeter was able to detect the student’s pain when no one else could, which led to her getting much-needed help.

Selma Unified’s lead mental health clinician, Kristy Rangel, remembers another incident when a student sat in her office but had completely shut down and refused to talk. Jeter walked over and started nudging the student with his nose, signaling to be petted. Jeter climbed into the student’s lap, and the student started crying and hugging the dog.

“Then we were able to process,” Rangel said. “It’s that comfort, that judgment-free zone.

“They (Jeter and Scout) allow people to put down their defenses and allow them to open up.”

Those are a few of the countless examples of what Rangel describes as her “co-therapists” identifying students in need of support and eliminating barriers to students opening up.

“The school’s culture wouldn’t be the same without them,” Selma High senior Adam Lanas said.

What’s happening in Selma Unified is much larger than the therapy dogs. It’s a districtwide enterprise to change the culture of mental health, so students, as well as their families, know help is available.

On May 19, about 300 Selma High School students stood in line waiting to join the school’s mental health awareness activities. In one activity, they explored the differences between thoughts and feelings: Is a statement on the spinning wheel a thought or feeling? At another station, the students created a Cares Gram — a thoughtful message for someone they care about or know they can count on. A few tables down, students wrote themselves messages on small rocks, using bright-colored pens.

Students were amazed by a table full of toys, which students can actually use to soothe their five senses: 3D Pin Art Sensory toys, Needles Fidget Palm Boards and fidget slugs for touch and kaleidoscopes and RED Classic ViewMaster 3D Viewer and Collector Reels for sight.

“This will help you stay calm,” Rangel told one student.

Before Jeter, ‘no one wanted services’

But having hundreds of students participate in raising mental health awareness wasn’t always the norm in Selma Unified schools — a nearly 6,000-student district in southeast Fresno County of the central San Joaquin Valley.

Rangel and others remembered that less than 10 years ago, no one wanted to take part in mental health activities on campus.

People didn’t acknowledge mental health, she said.

Now the perception of mental health is different. Students and staff credit the therapy dogs, Jeter and Scout, who, during the mental health activities, sat in their wagon waiting for the opportunity to take pictures with students.

Selma Unified formed its mental health team in fall 2014 with two mental health clinicians to address students’ social-emotional needs such as anxiety, depression, mental health disorders, family stressors and trauma-related experiences.

The mental health team received 32 referrals for student support services in the 2014-15 school year, and 88 in 2015-16, before Jeter came.

“No one wanted services,” Rangel said about the first few years.

Students and parents often told Rangel, “‘My kid’s not crazy. I don’t need to talk to you; I’m fine.’”

She had an idea of how to change those attitudes.

Before her time in Selma, Rangel was a forensic therapist for the Napa County juvenile justice system where they used therapy dogs to help the kids once a week after court.

“I noticed when they had the therapy dogs there, they weren’t calling me to help regulate and calm some of the youth down because the dogs were there to provide that comfort and support,” she recalled.

That’s when she and her dog, Jeter, first started training to become certified in animal-assisted psychotherapy.

When Selma Unified hired her in 2014, she suggested Jeter as a therapy dog, but the district was skeptical of the idea at first.

So Jeter worked at Valley Children’s Hospital as one of George’s Pals — dog volunteers providing animal-assisted therapy to patients.

“My big selling point to the school board was: If Valley Children’s (Hospital) trusts Jeter around their patients, why can’t we trust him around our students?” Rangel said.

At the time, other school districts had been implementing therapy dogs. Clovis Unified has used a therapy dog for several years and brings additional dogs on campus during finals week to alleviate stress as do colleges, including Sacramento State, CSU Long Beach and UC Berkeley.

Therapy dogs calm older students, help younger students acquire skills

The dogs work with the district’s mental health team to provide social and emotional learning lessons, serve as attendance incentives, respond to crises, and provide individual therapy sessions.