Brunswick Junior High School student Timber Wilson, Desi the black lab and School Resource Officer Kerry Wolongevicz. C. Thacher Carter/ The Times Record.

When Desi — the new support dog at Brunswick Junior High School — walked outside on Friday morning during recess, students of all grade levels rushed over to pet her.

“I see her almost every day,” said Timber Wilson, 14, an eighth grader at the school. “Sometimes when I walk into the office, or I’ll be walking by, there will be kids who are petting her, and they’ll just have the happiest, purest smiles on their face.”

Desi, a 3-year old black lab, was introduced to the junior high school in mid-September to help alleviate stress. Most days, Desi is stationed in the office with her handler, School Resource Officer Det. Kerry Wolongevicz. Wilson said, at first, she would go to the dog if she was having a hard day, but now the bond has grown and Desi will recognize and greet her walking through the hallways.

“She has really helped me this year break down a lot of barriers with students, as far as having them be comfortable with me,” said Wolongevicz.

The initiative to place Desi in the junior high was a collaboration between the Brunswick school and local police department. According to Wolongevicz, Desi took on extensive obedience and socialization training prior to being introduced to the students.

Today, Desi is at the school most days of the week, and students are welcome to come by Wolongevicz’s office during study hall or lunch to play with the pup. Additionally, if a student is acting out at the school, Desi will frequently be brought to the classroom to help calm students down.

While Desi is being trained for police duties – such as tracking as well as evidence and drug detection – her role at the school is entirely separate from police work, Wolongevicz said.

“At the school, she is just here to be everybody’s friend,” Wolongevicz added, noting that Desi naturally distinguishes between the two roles in part due to a vest that is worn during police work.

Shelley Prophett, who has taught functional life skills for students with the highest needs of support at Brunswick Junior High School for six years, said that Desi has served as a comfortable, judgement-free figure for her students.

“There has been a couple of times where we have had some students who have been really quite dysregulated emotionally, some screaming and yelling and maybe throwing stuff,” said Prophett. “Desi comes in, and it’s pretty instantaneous. Within the first three to five minutes kids are visibly calmer, you can see their bodies relax, they may ask to lay with her, or give her a hug. It’s almost like she instinctually knows which kids in the classroom are having a hard time.”

Desi, the new support dog at Brunswick Junior High School. C. Thacher Carter / The Times Record

In addition, Prophett said, there are students she knows who have had negative associations with police because of home-life situations, and Desi has served as a bridge for those students to gain more interactions with law enforcement.

“A lot of it really comes back to that unconditional regard, and essentially love that these people get from animals,” said Augusta O’Reilly, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist with Biddeford-based Maine Behavioral Healthcare.

O’Reilly, who is also certified in veterinary social work, said York High School is the only other school department in Maine she knows of that has used a support dog — although therapy and comfort animals are also becoming increasingly popular on college campuses.

In addition to students, O’Reilly said that veterans, those with autism spectrum disorder and elderly individuals are common clients for “therapy dogs” – a title typically for dogs who are incorporated into a treatment plan.

O’Reilly said that she has not encountered an animal taking on dual services like police and support work, however she said the Brunswick program could be effective so long as it is done right.

The vest as a tool to distinguish when Desi is doing police work, O’Reilly said, is consistent with service dogs who will wear one as a signal for being “on the clock.” She agreed that Desi could serve as an effective bridge for forming positive relationships between authority figures and middle school students.

According to Pawesome Advice, an online resource that collect expert advice and data for pet owners, emotional support animals have gained “incredible popularity” over the last decade, and there are now more than 65,000 of them in the U.S. Approximately 74% of pet owners reported improved mental health because of their animals, according to the same website.

Desi, the new support dog at Brunswick Junior High School. C. Thacher Carter / The Times Record

Overall, the dog has added a positive layer to the building, according to Brunswick Junior High School Principal Laurie Catanese, and having Desi aligns with the school’s focus on social and emotional learning.

Procedures and protocols were developed earlier in the school year to help guide Desi’s interaction with students, Catanese added.

“Students often in middle school are developing their skills around independence, they’re developing skills around homework completion, they’re developing skills around peer-to-peer conflicts,” Catanese said. “I think what Desi does is just bring a grounding force for a lot of students.”


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