By Melissa Fili
MethuenLife Writer

Two new friends are making their way to Methuen classrooms, supplying not only excitement and joy but also calmness, relaxation, unconditional love … and plenty of tail-wagging.

Meet Methuen Public Schools’ first therapy dogs! Dougie, a 3-year-old Wheaten Terrier, and his owner Brenda Busta recently started visiting Tenney and Marsh students weekly. Since the fall, 4-year-old black lab Monty and his owner Sue Wartman have been stopping by Comprehensive Grammar School weekly. Both certified therapy dogs are helping MPS work to intervene and/or prevent anxiety and depression in the classroom, thanks to a no-cost partnership with Therapy Dogs International.

After just one visit, Dougie left a huge impression on Tenney second-graders in teacher Sarah Hudon’s class. They described him as fluffy and “so soft,” medium size with brown eyes. He even “made nice little noises when we patted him,” one boy added.

“Whenever you pat him, you feel calm. That’s because he’s a therapy dog,” stated Jacob Guzman Herrera.

Joseph Taveras Espinal said, “He helps us with feelings. If I’m angry, I don’t feel that when I’m with him.”

“We can all touch him and he doesn’t get upset or bite,” noted Lucas Leon Meran. “His birthday is 2 days after Valentine’s Day.”

“He gives you love,” smiled Aritza German.

Ervin Charles added, “I’m more of a cat person and I never patted a dog before. But he’s a nice dog!”

During the initial Q&A with Dougie’s handler, teacher Hudon was surprised by her young students’ familiarity with therapy dogs: “My kids all knew that a therapy dog is used for stress, anxiety. … It’s a little sad, but it’s just the way things are. They’re aware that this dog can make you feel calm and smile.”

Busta, a Methuen resident, says Dougie has quickly become a star at Tenney and Marsh, with students calling out his name as she walks through the halls. As a former middle school math teacher, Busta knows how important Dougie’s job here is.

“Teaching in Lowell, I saw how good it was for kids there so I wanted my next dog to be a therapy dog,” she says. “I brought him home from the breeder the same day my dad died. He’s been my therapy dog. … He’s got the temperament, plus a lot of obedience training and lots of visit to Home Depot and Lowe’s – where dogs are welcome – so he could get used to people and loud noises.”

Dougie and Monty were both certified at Auntie Dog Training Studio in Tewksbury.

School counselors schedule Dougie and Monty’s half-hour visits with small groups and in classrooms.

“With the younger kids, we sit in a circle on the rug. Dougie is in the middle and wiggles his way around and everyone can give him love,” Busta explains. “For Upper School, sometimes kids are at their desk and we mingle through. Then I’ll ask, ‘Anyone want a second love?’ ”

“Before and after each visit, classroom teachers have their students complete a ‘temperature/feelings check’ from MPS’s Trails to Wellness social emotional program,” said Tenney Lower School Counselor Laura DePlacido. “We have found through our data collection that students’ emotions improve after a visit with Dougie. … From a social/emotional standpoint, Dougie is helping Methuen Public Schools to meet District Objective #2: Increase prevention and intervention activities to lower prevalence rates of student anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.”

And beyond that, these very good dogs are turning frowns upside-down. 

“A visit from Dougie brightens our day! We use the motto ‘Give Love and Get Love with Dougie’!” said DePlacido, who hopes “that students are able to recognize and describe a decreased level of stress and anxiety” after time with these dogs.

Over at CGS, Supervising Principal Katie Proietti notes, “Monty wags his way through classrooms in Upper and Lower school each Thursday! He brings love and sunshine to all of our classrooms and programs. Students ask about him and proudly display his ‘business cards’ on their desks. We are so grateful to Sue Wartman, his owner, for their continued partnership.”

Dozens of teachers at all three schools have signed up for visits from the therapy dogs. The district hopes to expand this free program to the Timony and Methuen High.

Back at Tenney, Hudon is thankful for Dougie’s visits and said she envisions his value at all grade levels, “especially during (MCAS) testing for the older kids.”

“I’m so glad (my second-graders) have had this chance,” Hudon said. “They are psyched (to spend time with Dougie) – it’s really been a positive.”

Dougie has already made an extra-special connection with an autistic child at the Marsh.

“Before I leave, we make sure we visit one little boy,” Busta said. “He hasn’t touched Dougie yet, but he gets so excited to see him. We make his day!”