Sisi the Therapy/Comfort dog at Roger Bacon High School
There’s less stress, more joy, since Sisi came to school
It’s 8:30 on Friday morning, and Sisi has a lot of work to do.
Job No. 1: Sniff out the treats hidden in a rubber Kong ball under a desk in the Guidance Office.
Job No. 2 is to give and get love, all day long. This makes Sisi, a 14-month-old Australian Labradoodle, the most popular staff member at Roger Bacon High School in St. Bernard, Ohio. It’s a role she was born and trained to play.
The school’s first Therapy/Comfort dog, Sisi is smart, intuitive, and unflappable. Noise does not faze her and crowds will not distract her from her mission: to reduce the level of stress in everyone she meets.
By being her affectionate self, “She brings out the best in people,” says Guidance Director Pam Rosfeld, who shares her office with Sisi. “If a kid is upset and doesn’t even know why they’re upset, they sit on the floor and start focusing on her and petting her. When they see her, they’re just happier. Whatever was bothering them melts away. It’s almost magical. She’s brilliant. She’s gifted” – and really, really cute.
Led through the school by friar Mark Hudak, one of her six trained “handlers”, Sisi will do walkabouts in classes where exams are scheduled, lending a gentle, calming presence that says to kids, “You’ve got this.” She responds to the command, “Sisi: Snuggle,” by gently placing her paws on a student’s lap.
She has an Instagram account, attends sporting events, rode in the Homecoming Parade, and is the face of a line of t-shirts at Roger Bacon’s Spirit Shop. Sisi is more than a therapy dog, says Pam. “She’s a goodwill ambassador for the school.”
On a typical day, she works her magic on dozens of people who walk away smiling. That includes Principal Steve Schad, a former Marine who is by no means a pushover. Stopping by the Guidance Office where she spends most of her time, he greets her with outstretched arms and a hearty, “Hello, Beautiful!” Her tail starts swishing like a cheerleader’s pom-pom.
“When I feel stressed,” he says, “I’ll sing in the hall, I’ll talk to my kids and I’ll go back and play with Sisi. For me personally it helps. For the faculty it helps. It’s very hard not to feel good when you see her.”
In the moment
That feeling is shared by about 500 other people at Bacon. “She’s good for our stress level back here, I can tell you that,” says Pam.
“I love Sisi,” says Solomon Tentman, a freshman guidance counselor. “She helps make this place be a little more joyful. She has a really good presence and does a really good job of being there for the kids. Helping them calm down is her specialty. Their faces light up when they see her in the hallway; they forget they had a problem.”
Sometimes, Pam says, “You just need a moment to breathe. There’s a laundry list of things kids are doing: jobs; sports; activities. Students have so many stressors in their lives today. A lot of it comes from this,” she says, holding up her smartphone. “These kids aren’t growing up the way we did. They never disconnect from their phones to live in the present moment. One of Sisi’s assets is, when they’re with her they take a break from that.” Like every dog, “Sisi lives in the moment. They hug her and play with her. Sisi can do things we can’t.”
Today, as usual, she’s on call in the office. A teen preparing to attend her first March for Life in Washington, D.C., has some last-minute jitters. After a few minutes with Sisi, she is calm and collected, ready to roll. Sophomore Ben Obringer, tussling with Sisi over toys on the floor, says she helps him focus on studies. “I’ve always liked dogs, and they always calm me down. I get all my work done so I get to spend 10 minutes with Sisi. When she sees me,” he says, “it’s playtime.”
As bells signal the end of a class, Pam leads Sisi into the hall where kids rush to their next subject. Amid the chaos, they stop and sweep a hand over the dog’s head or stoop to ruffle her soft, curly coat. It’s a ritual they’ve practiced since last April, when Sisi, then a gregarious 5-month-old puppy, stepped out of a van with her trainer and into their hearts.
Finding a match
It was Pam who encouraged the school to apply for a therapy dog. “After the school shooting at Sandy Hook [in 2012], we started hearing more about dogs being brought into schools to help students” who were dealing with stress and grief. “Therapy dogs were going to colleges and nursing homes and hospitals, and there was a news program I saw in May of 2018 that Badin High School in Hamilton [Ohio] had gotten one. That planted the idea in my head. We are a Franciscan school. We have a lot of animal lovers.”
Principal Schad was immediately on board, “very much in favor of it,” Pam says. “Then I talked to the folks at Hamilton Badin over the summer. We saw what kinds of things a dog can do. I wanted us to be one of the first ones to apply for a dog – not the last. We decided to use the same playbook as Badin,” and work with Ultimate Canine, a Westfield, Ind., trainer of family pets, service and therapy dogs for individuals, schools, police departments and military veterans. “I wanted one that was hypoallergenic and would not shed. Other than that, we didn’t know what we would get. You get put into a queue for when they have a dog.” It took months to find the right match for Bacon.
In February of 2019, Pam got the call from Ultimate Canine. “We have your dog,” they said, a puppy so friendly she was earmarked for school service at the age of 8 weeks. While she trained, “They sent me pictures of this little Labradoodle,” which, by cosmic coincidence, was Franciscan brown with a white stripe – the school colors. “We had a naming contest right away.” When votes were counted, the name the kids chose over Franny, Sparta, Joy, Clare, and Angel was “Sisi”, in honor of Francis of Assisi.
Pam then assembled the village of people it would take to make things work, a team of on-staff handlers who could master a series of commands and take the dog overnight when her chief handler needed a break. The biggest issue was finding a home. Who would look after Sisi, bring her to school, manage her vet visits and grooming appointments?
No. 1 handler
Brandon Spaeth, Assistant Athletic Coach and life-long dog lover, volunteered to be her primary handler. “When the guidance counselor brought it up, she said they would have a hard time finding people to take care of the dog,” says 26-year-old Brandon, who had just bought a house and had plenty of room. “I said I would absolutely take her.” They bonded big-time, with Brandon taking her home each day and bringing her along to sporting events. Now when he drops her off at the Guidance Office, Sisi looks after him wistfully, like a toddler left at preschool for the first time, watching out the window as he walks to work at the Fogarty Center next door. She then patrols the office for dog treats before settling down to await her fans.
“Brandon has been the critical piece” in the project, Pam says. “He brought his skills he uses as an athletic director to secure sponsorships” for Sisi. The Animal Care Center in Forest Park provides free medical care and grooming. The Pet One store at Findlay Market delivers dog food every month, free of charge. The school purchased Sisi with general funds, but “She costs us nothing on a day-to-day basis.”
In November, when the school celebrated her first birthday with cake and a party, attendees donated pet food, toys and office supplies for Pets in Need, a veterinary clinic for low-income families. Pam sees more of that happening in the future, with Sisi as a fund-raising focus for animal welfare.
As popular as she is, “We don’t force her on anybody,” Steve says. “We know we have some kids who are afraid of dogs or who have a history with dogs that is not positive.” When the word went out about Sisi – kind of like a birth announcement – parents were asked if they minded having a dog at school. Not a single one complained.
Asked how Sisi deals with all the attention, Brandon responds, “Spoiled rotten.” The worst Pam and her colleagues will say is, “She’s stingy with her kisses.”
After lunch, friar Mark takes Sisi to the Information Technology Center for a lively game of catch, much to the delight of students hunkered down over their iPads. “She’s like a child who needs to burn off energy,” he says. Back in the Guidance Office, Sisi plays hide-and-seek with three students and her favorite crinkle toys. “See ya, Sisi!” they wave on the way out when a bell summons them to class. “She’s still a baby,” says Pam, as the dog plops down for a well-earned nap. “She needs her rest.”
An errand brings Julie Vehorn, Director of Academics, to the Guidance Office, so she settles on the floor for a few minutes with the dog. “She’s wonderful, just a ball of love. Having us interact with Sisi is a way for all of us to see each other as people. Interacting and playing with the dog is one way to get to see people in a different light.”
And what better place for a dog than a Franciscan school? “A lot of people have the concept of St. Francis and the bird bath,” Julie says, and that’s it. “But there’s so much more: an understanding of how Francis celebrated so many elements of God’s creation as being valuable – air, water, animals, the ground we walk on. And all these elements are from God and have to be taken care of.”
As Pam says of Sisi, “I think her impact is subtle but pervasive. You never know what impact the ripple effect will have when a kid walks by and has an encounter with her and then goes to the next class” – the pay-it-forward power of kindness.
If a student arrives at school in a bad frame of mind and pets a dog, “Just maybe we can change the direction of their day,” says Principal Steve. “We want to make the students feel wanted and valued, and Sisi does that. Counselors have seen kids come in who are having a bad day or a high level of tension. Just having Sisi sit next to them in a chair will immediately cut the tension.”
The “wanted and valued” part is especially important at Bacon, a sponsored ministry of the friars. “What does it mean to be Franciscan? It means everybody and everything has value,” Steve says. “St. Francis saw value in all people,” as does Sisi.
“I like to think he’s looking down on us once in a while. And I like to think that if he’s looking down at Roger Bacon, he would see Sisi and what she does, and he would smile.”
Help for students in need
As educators help students deal with depression, isolation and loss of self-esteem, three innovative high schools in Southwest Ohio have turned to man’s best friend for help – and they’re all Catholic:
• Last spring Roger Bacon High School in St. Bernard welcomed Sisi, an Australian Labradoodle, as a Therapy/Comfort Dog.
• Cincinnati’s St. Xavier High School recently introduced golden retriever Evan as a Facility Dog for Therapy to support students’ health and wellness.
• At Badin High School in Hamilton, Rudy the Labradoodle has been on the job as a Therapy Dog since 2018. Funding for training was provided by the Charlotte Helen Bacon Foundation of Newtown, Ct., named for a 6-year-old who lost her life in the Sandy Hook School shooting in 2012. The foundation says Charlotte loved animals and dreamed of becoming a veterinarian.