WALDOBORO (WGME)-- Facing a youth mental health crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic, a growing number of U.S. schools are turning to therapy dogs to help students cope with anxiety.
There are two certified therapy dogs on the Midcoast improving the mental health of students, just by being there.
Smudge is one of the two therapy dogs owned by Medomak Middle School Principal Dr. Kate Race and her husband. Tilla is their other dog.
"The two dogs get split between all seven schools," Race said. "The kids specifically ask for either Tilla or Smudge."
Race is likely the first principal in Maine to bring therapy dogs into school on a daily basis. She discovered her border doodles put students and staff in a better mood. Attendance shot up and stress went down.
"It lessens anxiety just by physically touching a dog," Race said.
From the pandemic to cyber bullying and all the other the pressures kids feel, study after study shows students are more anxious than ever before. Therapy dogs reduce that stress.
"You can be really stressed out about a lot of stuff. And if you're focusing on the dog, and not focusing on that, it's good," seventh grader Ren Davis said.
"It's awesome because you can just let it out with the dogs," eighth grader Charles Noke said.
"When you're having a rough day, you can hang out with the dogs," seventh grader Logan Pickett said.
"If you're like failing, or have something going on in your home life, you can go up to Tilla and hug her," eighth grader Liam Feeley said.
Therapy dogs are relatively new in Maine schools. Across the country, though, thousands of schools are using therapy dogs, like Smudge and Tilla, to help students cope with stress, manage their emotions or comfort them in a crisis. Medomak Middle School even has a program that teaches students coping mechanisms.
"The therapy dogs have been great for this, because sometimes they get really stressed out. And it's nice that I can have Smudge or Tilla just wander into the room, and the whole mood changes instantly," Benjamin Flynn, who teaches coping mechanisms in school, said.
Tilla spent her day bringing smiles to grade school students at Miller School.
"She actually comes and helps me calm down a lot. It's actually kind of fun to hang out with Tilla because she's nice," fifth grader April Tolman said.
Tolman says she and her friends aren't always as nice as Tilla.
"We like to fight a lot," Tolman said. "She kind of calms me down."
School nurse Miranda Jandreau says Tilla has made a big difference.
"She is a huge support system for mental health. Just when children are having a day, whether it's anxiety, depression or just I'm having a bad day, she is there for them," Jandreau said.