Mental Health

This Super-Smelling Pup Sniffs Out Students’ Stress

Each morning, Cali, a four-year-old Rhodesian ridgeback, greets pre-K through 12-plus students as they walk through the doors of The Calais School. She’s checking their stress levels.

The fifth grader was going to have a meltdown, but Cali–a cortisol detection dog that works full time at a school for children with special needs– picked up the scent from across the building.

She nudged Casey Roerden, her trainer, handler, and a health education teacher, at The Calais School. “Time to go,” Roerden said.

When the student spotted Cali heading her way, she got distracted. “Cali is a welcome distraction,” says Roerden.

The student turned her attention to the dog. Her anger dissipated. While her focus was on Cali, Roerden talked to her about her feelings and as a reward for calmly expressing herself, she got to pet the dog.

Sometimes, Roerden lets the students brush and walk Cali. Some of them talk to her. “It’s often easier talking to a dog than to a person,” Roerden says. “Cali never judges and is always calm. The students like being around her.”

It’s often easier talking to a dog than a person…

About 85 children attend The Calais School, based in Whippany, New Jersey. Many of the students are on the autism spectrum; some have attention deficit disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and other challenges that can trigger anxiety and other difficult emotions.

Cali was trained to detect rising levels of cortisol, which is the stress hormone our adrenal glands secrete when we become anxious or stressed. When we are agitated, cortisol levels in our bloodstream rise and put out a scent that we can’t smell. Dogs, however, can. It’s Cali’s job to let Roerden know if a student’s cortisol levels are high.

“It’s their uncanny sense of smell that allows dogs like Cali to detect rising cortisol levels in our sweat or breath, and identify a student having trouble even in a faraway classroom,” says Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “Humans have 12 million smell receptors in their nose. At the lowest estimate, dogs have 800 million. Scent hounds like beagles and bassets have up to four billion. A dog’s ability to smell odors is beyond our comprehension.”

Casey Roerden and Cali wait outside The Calais School each morning to greet the students. Photo: The Calais School

“We are proud of ourselves when we drive past Burger King and can smell that they are cooking burgers,” he says. “Dogs can smell a burger being cooked in the next town. That is why dogs are used to detect melanomas, diabetes, and other types of disease. It’s all about their sense of smell.”

Cali is one of three working dogs at The Calais School. Sage, a German shorthaired pointer, and Cleo, a beagle, are both rescues. They are part of the school’s Animal Adaptive Therapy program. Sage joined the program after Roerden adopted him. He works as a substitute for Cali. Both Cali and Sage live with Roerden.

Cleo works with the school’s occupational therapist. She helps students practice fine and gross motor skills. She often wears a vest with laces, zippers, and buttons. She and the occupational therapist teach the children how to tie shoes, zip zippers, and button buttons. A few of the students read aloud to her, too.

A dog’s ability to smell odors is beyond our comprehension… That is why dogs are used to detect melanomas, diabetes, and other types of disease.

“The dogs don’t bark, jump up on the students, and are always accepting,” says Roerden, who is also a certified specialist in natural canine behavior rehabilitation and in animal adaptive therapy.

Cali was brought to the school in 2013 from a local nonprofit called Merlin’s KIDS that trains service dogs to work with special needs children. “Some schools with a special-needs population have service dogs that visit and work with the students as a once-in-a-while activity,” says David Leitner, executive director of the Calais School. “We thought having a service dog on staff would benefit our students.”

A ninth grader agrees. “Cali can help us cope with our problems so that we don’t have to get through it by ourselves,” he says.

Sage and Cleo also come from Merlin’s KIDS, the school’s partner organization that has trained all of the service dogs. The handlers and service dogs in the program are rigorously trained. “Our animal handlers are certified in Natural Canine Behavior Rehabilitation through United K9 Professionals,” Leitner says. “More than 2,000 hours of training and behavior modification goes into completing the protocols required for each service dog and handler.”

The Calais School will expand its Animal Adaptive Therapy program. They have plans to bring on graduate level interns from Kean University and New York University majoring in occupational therapy, speech therapy, and social work to be trained in animal adaptive therapy.

School officials deeply believe that their Animal Adaptive Therapy program has been so beneficial that they welcome inquiries from other schools that specialize in working with children with special needs who want to create similar programs. After all, there’s nothing better than a dog’s love in your life to make all your other problems fade away.

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