MOSES LAKE — Amid the din and mild chaos of over a hundred young students chatting during the first lunch period at Chief Moses Middle School, the youngest professional at the school walks past a school resource officer, sniffs the air, and begins strolling between the aisles.
The students that spot him begin to coo his name sweetly, holding out their hands and, if no one's looking, a stray fry from their lunch. It's not long before he is surrounded by students taking turns to give him a hug, eventually breaking away only to let a new student join in. When one gaggle returns to their lunch, he resumes making the rounds.
Not only is Brodi Sky Walker the youngest professional at the school, he's significantly younger than most of the students. Not even two years old, the chocolate lab is still just a large puppy. Still, he carries himself through the lunchroom with the kind of thoughtful dignity that many parents hope their human children would gain during the transitional years that make up middle school.
Once he greeted many of the students in the lunch hall, he makes wider loops, circling the room, greeting the lunchroom cashier and sniffing the officer.
He saunters his way up some steps to a separate table for an upset looking student with special needs, nuzzling her hand.
She pulls away sharply at first. But just a minute later, when she's done eating, she quietly approaches Brodi, and, looking away, runs her fingers through his coat.
As students finish their meals and begin to trickle out, School Counselor Chris Mason, Brodi's owner and handler, leads him out into the halls. Brodi doesn't wear a leash, following calmly behind. Mason opens the door to a classroom, asks the teacher if it's a good time, and lets Brodi walk in.
It's quick, less than five minutes, but almost every student in the classroom takes a moment to give Brodi their full attention, petting him, calling for him, even singing a little song, “Brodi Come Back,” as he saunters to the next student.
After making the rounds, Brodi and Mason walked out into the halls, just outside of the counseling offices. As the bell rings and students begin to pour out on their way to the next class, Brodi stands to the side, greeting passerby, looking over his kids as they go on their way.
Years ago, a chocolate lab named Katie worked in the middle school's life skills room, a special needs classroom. Mason would occasionally walk Katie around the school campus, letting her stretch her legs, and he noted the way that students would light up as she wagged her way through the halls.
It got Mason to thinking. Chief Moses has long struggled with behavioral problems among their students, and fights are not uncommon. A uniformed and armed police officer strolls the halls, a sight more common in high schools than middle schools, both to protect the students against potential threats from outside, but also to protect them from each other.
Building relationships with these students can help mitigate some of the underlying tensions that lead to those fights, but also to students falling behind in school or turning to drugs. But, with the students who cause themselves and others the most trouble, underlying trauma can make building those relationships painstakingly slow, Mason said.
In the best of circumstances, school districts can afford school psychologists to help students open up and manage the stress they face both inside and outside of school. But psychologists are prohibitively expensive, and most districts are lucky if they can share one with other districts.
A therapy dog, however, is far more affordable. Mason believed that bringing in a therapy dog could have a profound impact on that process, helping to more quickly build relationships and trust with students. By and large, he had the broad support of school staff and faculty.
That doesn't mean it was an easy process. The school's insurance company initially recommended that the school not bring in a therapy dog out of concern for potential liability. Mason found that answer strange, given that the same company insured the local police department, whose canines are trained to bite people, not provide therapeutic relief.
But Mason pushed on. If he couldn't get buy-in from the school, he would try to raise and train the dog himself and present the school with an actual dog, rather than just a theory, to see if that would move the needle.
That process was accelerated almost by accident. Mason had been visiting with a friend when she mentioned that there was a dog with her. Mason was surprised, not even having noticed the quiet service dog laying at her feet, a calm chocolate lab.
The friend connected Mason with that lab's breeder, who showed Mason some of his friend's lab's siblings. He got to pick up each of the puppies that weren't already spoken for, and eventually got to a male puppy.
Purebred dogs are exceedingly expensive, and the price tag on that dog was around $800. But, when the breeder heard that Mason wasn't looking for a personal service dog, but rather was hoping to bring in a therapy dog to comfort middle schoolers, Mason offered the dog for free on the spot.
On one condition. Whatever Mason named the dog, it had to include the name “Sky,” the surname of the breeding pair. So, on that day, Chief Moses' future professional pooch was dubbed Brodi Sky Walker.
“I'm a huge Star Wars nerd, if you can't tell,” Mason said.
Mason got to work making his pitch again, presenting studies to school officials that showed how therapy dogs could improve students' reading scores, lower students' blood pressure and defuse tension. Mason passed that first test, getting a therapy dog approved for his counseling curriculum.
The school allowed Mason to train Brodi on-site, at first only occasionally, where he could become used to the hustle and bustle of a middle school campus. It didn't even take a full day before Brodi had his first impact. When a student walked into Mason's office that day and saw the 16-week-old puppy, she cried into his coat.
“I'm like, ‘oh my gosh,' the dog's already doing his thing!” Mason recalled, laughing.
Then the dog had to pass its own tests, starting with the Canine Good Citizen test. That test, administered by the American Kennel Club, measures a dog's ability to control its instincts. Can they be left with another handler without reaction? Can they be presented with another dog without becoming distracted?
It took many weeks and over a thousand dollars, which Mason spent out of pocket, but Brodi, still just a puppy, passed with flying colors and eventually earned his official registration as a therapy dog.
So Brodi got to work.
A very good boy
As a school counselor, Mason is often the front line for students with disruptive behavioral issues. One such student suffering from mental illness had assaulted her 6th grade teacher and struggled to perform in class, and Mason said that, before Brodi, the extensive time working with this student had a limited effect on her wellbeing and behavior.
But one look at Brodi's chocolate-brown, fuzzy ears changed all of that.
“It was amazing what Brodi could do for this gal,” Mason said. “She started doing what she needed to do in class so that she could come in and see Brodi. Towards the end, she was coming in every day for weeks.”
Mason made her a deal: if she continued to do her best to improve her behavior and complete her classwork, she would be able to take Brodi out to the playfield and play fetch with him at the end of the school year.
She did her best to live up to that standard, but though her inappropriate behaviors were mitigated, they didn't disappear. One day, as the kids were leaving school to go home, she had another acute episode.
Teachers and administrators were struggling to get her to cooperate when Mason walked over to her with Brodi by his side.
“I said, ‘hey, if you get up, Brodi will let you take his leash and walk him to your (parent's) car,'” Mason gently told her. “She hops right up, takes me by the arm, takes Brodi's leash and talks to Brodi all the way out to her car. All the administrators looked at me like they couldn't believe it.”
It hasn't just been students that have benefited from Brodi's calming presence.
After Christopher McKnight, a veteran principle of ten years for the Warden School District, died in a car accident last March, Brodi was brought in days later to comfort the staff and students who had been shaken by the sudden loss of their friend and colleague.
“He went into every middle school classroom in Warden that day, and every high school classroom, and into the meeting in the morning with the staff, and into the administrator's office,” Mason said. “He did a lot of good work in that office.”
Mason believes that Brodi's impact has been far reaching at Chief Moses and beyond, and holds a lesson to other schools struggling to connect with their kids.
Though Brodi is only in his first school year, and he wasn't the only factor involved, Mason is proud to say that the rates of fights on campus have dropped significantly. He's also seeing kids now that he believes would never have come in if he didn't have Brodi.
Mason sees many of the behaviors plaguing schools across the country as the result of unaddressed trauma and stressors, and he notes studies showing the effect those adverse influences can have on the path that a student will take later in life.
“What can change that trajectory is a healthy relationship with an adult,” Mason said. “A huge part of what we need to do is to be that healthy relationship, and boy, you have a dog along next to you, that makes that job a lot easier.”