INDIANAPOLIS — The golden retriever named Millie slowly crossed the classroom, heading straight for the high school student who sat alone, looking stressed and anxious.
When she reached the youth, Millie raised her eyes toward him before sitting at the feet of the student. A moment later, the youth reached down to the golden retriever’s smooth, silky fur and began petting Millie in a rhythmic motion.
With each caress, the stress and anxiety on the boy’s face melted away.
That moment of calm transformation is a scene that Katherine Eckart has witnessed repeatedly in the three years she has brought Millie — a certified therapy dog — into the schools where she teaches art classes.
For the first two years, Millie and Eckart were a team at St. Joan of Arc School in Indianapolis. This year, they have been combining their talents at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis.
And Millie’s impact is the same whether she’s connecting with children in a grade school, teenagers in a high school or teachers in both settings.
“A therapy dog is there to comfort, to ease anxiety and stress,” Eckart told The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. “There are studies that show when humans and dogs are together, it boosts the endorphins of people. All the studies on therapy dogs and schools show it helps attendance, it gives kids a purpose to come to school, and it helps their interactions.”
“If a child isn’t comfortable around humans, maybe they’re comfortable around the dog,” she said.
During her two years at St. Joan of Arc School, Millie could often be found in the library where children would lie on the floor with her and read books to her.
As a school librarian, Aly Schroeder saw firsthand the impact Millie had on the children — and the adults in the school.
“You didn’t even need to be having a bad day for her to make it better,” Schroeder said. “A few minutes with her would do wonders for someone who was grumpy, having a bad day or needed to reset. Sometimes, the kids would even start talking about what was bothering them.
“She helped the kids who didn’t have a loving start to their day for whatever reason. It’s hard to quantify, but it’s powerful.”
Schroeder laughed and added, “And if you fed her some of your lunch, she liked you the best. She’s just so sweet.”
Millie’s sweetness continues to melt hearts at Bishop Chatard. Students drop by Eckart’s art classroom at different times of their school day to see Millie and pet her.
And when eighth-grade students spend a day at Bishop Chatard to see what the school is like, their student hosts often make a visit with Millie a part of the day.
“We all love Millie,” said Kylie Nagel, a senior at Bishop Chatard. “She’s the best dog to have around. She’s so calm. When she comes up to you, it’s almost like she’s saying, ‘Pet me!’ For me, it’s, ‘Of course, Millie!'”
Still, no one appreciates Millie more than Eckart, who has been teaching for 10 years.
“I get to bring her to work every day. That’s changed my whole outlook on teaching,” she said. “It’s amazing to watch how she affects the kids. She helps kids want to be in school. If a kid needs a second away from class, she calms them. When they see her in the hall, there are immediate smiles on their faces.”
The same is true for teachers. Millie sometimes wanders away from Eckart’s art room and roams into other classrooms, drawing smiles from teachers who tell Eckart, “I needed this little moment to relax.”
Eckart first had the idea of using Millie in the classroom about four years ago when she saw how her dog, now 8, interacted with her nieces and nephews.
“When she was 4 or 5, she calmed down energy-wise,” Eckart said. “I saw her grow up with my nieces and nephews — and saw her temperament around them. I thought it would be cool to bring her to school, and the kids would love her.”
Eckart approached St. Joan’s principal, Janet Andriole, about the possibility. Andriole was enthused, but also concerned about the liability. Eckart enrolled Millie in a six-week training course run by a nonprofit organization called “Paws and Think.”
Certified and insured, Millie started school and has been receiving high marks ever since.
As the other half of the team, Eckart doesn’t mind that Millie gets most of the attention. She’s just glad to share the experience with Millie.
“I grew up with dogs, always had goldens growing up,” said Eckart, who is 33 and the mother of an infant daughter. “She was my first dog as an adult. I got her when I was 25, before I was married. She has taken me from young adulthood to being a parent. I wanted to have babies before she moved on. That’s why we got another dog — to keep her young. I get to spend all my days with her.”
Eckart’s husband, Ross, learned just how close the bond is between Millie and his wife when he once asked what would have happened, as they were dating, if he didn’t like Millie. She basically told him that would have ended their relationship.
Eckhart shares that anecdote with a smile.
All of her own education took place in Catholic schools — St. Pius X School in Indianapolis, Bishop Chatard High School and the former St. Joseph College in Rensselaer, Indiana.
Loving her art classes as a 2007 graduate of Bishop Chatard, Eckart envisioned her dream job — to return to the school to teach art and immerse herself in that Catholic community.
“I knew I loved the sense of community I had in Catholic schools growing up,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be in that same environment teaching. I think it helps me stay strong in my faith. We get to go to Mass. We get to pray before class and at the beginning of the day. … It’s all around you. It keeps my own faith in check.”
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Shaughnessy is assistant editor at The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.