JFS Perspectives

Friday, February 21, 2020

Therapy Dog Offers Joy, Comfort, and Reflection for High School Students

Rachel Uslan and ColfaxSarah* walked into the Success Center at George Washington (GW) High School crying, looking for a mental health professional to talk to. To her surprise, she was guided into a therapist’s office by a dog!

Colfax, the six-year old boxer/basset hound rescue dog, accompanies his owner, Rachel Uslan, LCSW, to work at GW on Mondays and Thursdays. Rachel is a school-based therapist who provides free mental health services to students and their families through JFS’s KidSuccess program.

The Success Center houses all the mental health staff for the school, so Colfax has gotten to know a lot of students, not just those on Rachel’s caseload. Rachel says, “He gives students cuddles, brings a greater sense of joy and comfort, and is often a presence to lighten the mood.”

When Sarah came in crying and Colfax led her to Rachel’s office, “Sarah was very dysregulated and needed someone to talk to,” explains Rachel. “I did some de-escalation to help Sarah calm down, she pet Colfax, got grounded, reset, and I was able to refer her to a school counselor.”

One of Rachel’s clients, Matt*, is especially bonded with Colfax. He comes to therapy for persistent depression, feels socially isolated at school, and hasn’t experienced enough nurturing from his parents.

Rachel says, “He has been so kind, sweet, and nurturing with Colfax. Matt will lie on the floor with him, put a pillow under Colfax’s head, and sometimes even put his sweatshirt on top of the dog as a blanket. Working with Colfax is a good way to reflect to Matt his capacity for love and caring. I can show Matt that these qualities come naturally to him and help reinforce his self-esteem in that area. I often remind him, ‘When you get stressed, channel your inner Colfax.’”

ColfaxWith other students, Colfax is emotional support—they will pet him as they talk. Sometimes Rachel and the students will go for walks outside with Colfax and practice mindfulness. “I will encourage them to attune to the present moment and point out the parallel process between the dog’s emotions and theirs, which helps them feel validated,” Rachel explains.

Many students—and teachers—seek out Colfax to say “hi” or pet him when they need a break in the day or are feeling stressed. Rachel has a sign on her office door to show when he is in or out, along with guidelines on how to relate to Colfax. If a student is afraid of dogs, their friends often encourage them to pet him. If they don’t want to be near Colfax, she will safely contain him and meet alone with the students.

Rachel and Colfax aren’t the only JFS human-canine therapy team. Amanda Carter became certified in animal-assisted therapy in 2016. She integrates this mode of therapy with her clients at Samuels Elementary School with her dog, Koda.

*Names have been changed for privacy

KidSuccess is an innovative program in which trained Jewish Family Service therapists work in local public and private schools, providing children and adolescents access to free quality counseling services. Our unique hands-on approach promotes a supportive school environment for students that fosters achievement, high self-esteem, resiliency, and personal responsibility. Learn more or donate to this program.

META DESCRIPTION: See the impact Jewish Family Service KidSuccess school-based therapist's therapy dog, Colfax, has on students at George Washington High School.