How "comfort dogs" are improving behavior in New York City classrooms

Comfort dogs in NYC schools
Comfort dogs in NYC schools 04:52

Every morning, Principal Kevyn Bowles walks Brightly from his home to New Bridges Elementary School in Brooklyn. Brightly is part of a program in New York City schools called Mutt-i-grees. 

Schools adopts rescue animals, which live with a school administrator, and during the day they are embedded into school life. They do everything from curbing conflict, to motivating students, to offering puppy love, reports CBS News' Bianna Golodryga.

"There are teachers who have explicitly said 'I love Brightly so much because she reminds me of the students we have to care about the most,'" Bowles said.

Brightly is the more rambunctious of the two rescue-dogs-turned-comfort-canines who have transformed the learning experience for students like third grader Akeelah Allen.

"I love kissing them. They're so cute," Akeelah said. They also make her feel better.

The curriculum was developed by Yale University and New York's North Shore Animal League. The program was expanded to 42 New York City schools this year. 

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Brightly is one of New Bridges Elementary School's two comfort dogs.  CBS News

Of these non-humans, Shine is the calmer, mellower dog. She greets students in the morning, attends school assemblies and serves as a reading buddy.

"And, Shine, we call the elder statesman of the two," Bowles said. "She'll just snuggle up next to you on the carpet in the classroom and you could read to her for hours. So they each bring a little different personality to the mix."

These furry, four-legged friends and others like them started roaming school halls at the suggestion of a student council. A fifth grader told a New York City official that students were "angry for no reason" and that dogs could help. For Bowles, the pets are a way to bolster culture and community at his school. 

He said there was some apprehension at the beginning, with concerns about allergies and students who are afraid of dogs.  

"Some of the kids who were actually afraid of dogs…have come to love the dogs," Bowles said.

Fifth grader Tyrese Butts remembers what class was like without the bushy-tailed companions.

"Fourth grade was kinda weird 'cause all the kids were mean and not following direction. And then when everybody came to fifth grade and Shine and Brightly was here, they all just acted different and started being happy and being nice to each other," Tyrese said.

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Shine, New Bridges Elementary School's other therapy dog sits with students as they read.  CBS News

Play time with the dogs is used as an incentive for good behavior.

"We have some really challenging behaviors at our school, as every school does, and seeing certain students who now have individualized behavior plans, where if they meet certain goals each day, they get to come and see me and spend time with the dog has brought a real sense of purpose to those students' days in which they spend the morning trying to earn time with the dog, and then after they spend time with the dog, they are calm and positive for the rest of the day," Bowles said.

The dogs teach kids about responsibility, empathy, and making connections. Across New York City, 95 percent of participating educators say the canines have reduced emotional distress among students.

Shine and Brightly possess the qualities inherent in the best social workers: warmth and unconditional love.

A preliminary evaluation of the program conducted by Yale University reveals that 90 percent of participating educators reported improved student behavior. Seventy-nine percent said the dogs increased student interest in school and researchers are hopeful this success might one day be reflected in academic achievement.