Wagging their tails and smiling broadly, dogs look at humans with authentic optimism. They are enthusiastic, loving, and dependable friends. On March 22, Senior Elli Lenz brought Animal Rescue League’s therapy dogs to Waukee High School.
She generated the idea over winter break, and worked tirelessly to materialize it. With two groups of three dogs, her and the ARL team traveled through a few select classrooms. Many students questioned why they didn’t get visited, and this was because administration only approved the few. “I’m hoping from the positive feedback we got that the next time we do this we can expand the number of classrooms,” Lenz stated.
“It didn’t matter how you felt before the dogs came in because you couldn’t help but feel joyful when they were around,” shared sophomore Holden Sinnard. Sitting in his AP Lang class, Sinnard and his peers were suddenly overjoyed with the companionship of dogs. He continued, “The most comforting thing about the dogs is their energy. When you are sitting there, petting the dog, you get the feeling that the dog would be no other place than right there with you.”
For many people, dogs radiate a sense of simple comfort to find solace in. Bringing this into the school environment allowed for serenity in an otherwise nerve provoking environment. Sinnard shared, “I had more confidence in my abilities after the dogs visited, like I was more prepared for the finals that were to come.” The student also appreciated the attention brought to the ARL and need for dogs to be adopted.
In the same class was junior Sucheta Hegde, who shared, “Our teacher had told us about a timed writing at the end of class and that usually makes us all super anxious. When the dogs came in, we all momentarily calmed down and enjoyed ourselves.” She described, “It was nice because as high school students we don’t often get to take a step back and absorb the moment.”
Senior Paige Yontz had a suddenly emotional experience. “As soon as I sat down, Bix came over to me and plopped down in my lap and I actually cried a few tears of joy,” she admitted. Bix is a 12 year old Australian Shepherd, and one of many ARL therapy dogs. His owner Ruth Canny adopted him at three years old and trained him in obedience classes. Canny stated, “Seeing him enjoy other people and seeing these [student’s] reaction to the dog the best. Everyone came in smiling.” Yontz has an affinity for rescue dogs, and also recalled that she immediately thought of her own dog. “He reminded me of home and everything that home stands for.” She explained.
Senior Jane Azinger had a similar experience. She felt happy tears when she was able to pet the dogs. “Having a full week between learning the material and finals actually makes a huge difference,” she explained about her stress. “High school students get very stressed out with the workload and the pressure to get good grades along with trying to have a social life and get enough sleep.” For Azinger, Yontz, and many others; the dogs allowed them to relieve their nerves and have a moment of extreme happiness.
Lenz is satisfied with the project, and brought smiles to the faces to about 100 students. Her intention was to shed light on mental illness and the expansive effect it has on high school students. She spoke with several classes about this, but the dogs were enthralling. Still, the chance to step back and appreciate positivity conveyed a subtle statement of how to manage stress and mental illness healthily.
Hegde remarked, “High school is a really difficult time because you are dealing with so many different activities and at the same time being pressured to think increasingly about your future plans.” She believes small instances of happiness can relieve these pressures. The junior observed, “There are more students than I can count that get anxious before finals and often times when we are stressed we forget to take care of ourselves.”
“It’s nearly impossible to be a varsity athlete, participate in multiple clubs, take challenging courses, maintain a great class rank and gpa, and have a job without developing some kind of stress or anxiety,” Lenz declared. “Mental illness does not mean you’re crazy, and there are ways to treat it. Permanent solutions don’t solve temporary problems, but speaking up about what you’re going through to someone who cares… will never be ignored.” She recognized the effect of mental illness on her life, as well as the devastating impact it has made in Waukee community.
“Mental illness is challenging for students to show, especially in high school, because it’s perceived as a weakness and people are constantly judging the things you do and say,” she suggested. Lenz wants students to remember that high school is a short period of life, and they have immense potential for a remarkable future. “Everyone has their own struggles, and talking about them isn’t a sign of weakness; it takes a lot of courage.”