Therapy dog: COVID stress relief at Racine school

A Racine elementary school psychologist is relying on a new employee to help students and staff learn to manage stress: Her 3-year-old Shih Tzu-Yorkie mix named Casey.

Classroom visits and a few treats are easing the return to in-person learning. Between his four paws, wagging tail and calm demeanor, Casey's hard to miss in the halls at Gilmore Fine Arts School.

"I like school and all, but I really like to go to school because of him and some of the other teachers," said Kelly Hoaglund-Zumstein.


Hoaglund-Zumstein, Casey's owner, said she saw an opportunity for a therapy animal to work at the school, especially during the return from virtual learning.

"Every time I go into a classroom, I think the teachers are doing an excellent job just engaging, but you can definitely tell like, in the beginning for sure, there was a lot of stress and uncertainty about how this was gonna work," said Hoaglund-Zumstein.

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So when her schedule allows, the pair pencils classroom visits into their busy schedule, educating students on therapy animals before they get the chance to meet up-close.

Even if only for a few minutes a day, Hoaglund-Zumstein said it's obvious that Casey's helping students focus and manage their stress.


"Just how their faces light up and just, I don't know," she said. "Just seeing him interact with the students, too, it just makes me feel good knowing that that's a benefit for everybody."

Right now, Casey comes to work at Gilmore two days a week. Their next goal is to expand his reach to schools across the district. Casey, like some of the students, was a little nervous returning to in-person learning amid masks and social distancing. Hoaglund-Zumstein said that actually helped students become more comfortable with him.


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