Priority Pups™: Improving Mental Health and Wellness for Michigan Students

Priority Pups™: Improving Mental Health and Wellness for Michigan Students

Jun 13 2024

Priority Health is proud to launch Priority Pups™ in partnership with Canines for Change. Hear directly from Canines for Change Executive Director Dr. Nikki Brown on the benefits of the program and how Priority Pups™ will benefit students and the community at large.

In the post-pandemic era, rates of violence, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues in children have continued to rise. Nearly one in five children in Michigan have at least one mental health condition and of those experiencing depression, fewer than half have access to adequate mental health care.

Canines for Change provides highly-trained facility dogs in schools and beyond as mental health resources. The Canines for Change program serves hundreds of students and staff in buildings across all social and economic groups. After placing these dogs in schools, there is documented reductions in stress and anxiety and increased feelings of safety and self-esteem. Beginning the 2023 Fall school season, Priority Health, in collaboration with Canines for Change, is launching Priority Pups™, placing facility dogs in schools throughout Michigan.

What is a facility dog?

Facility dogs are highly trained pups partnered with trained handlers who work as a team in specific facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. School facility dogs are trained to work in classrooms and with individual students, addressing social, emotional and academic needs.

How is a facility dog different than a therapy dog?

Although similar to therapy dogs, facility dogs receive more extensive training, as do their handlers. Therapy dogs work with their owners to pass a therapy dog test and are registered with a therapy dog organization. They work occasionally for a few hours at a time and must be invited to the facility. They typically only remain on-site for an hour or two based on their owners’ availability.

Facility dogs, on the other hand, “work” full-time at the facility and are owned by the facility. The handler undergoes an extensive training course to learn how to work and care for the dog outside of work time. Handlers are also responsible for the dogs when they are not working.

What specifically will the Priority Pups™ do in their schools?

Priority Pups™, like other facility dogs, are trained to follow commands, but their training is tailored to the specific needs of the school they are placed in. For example, in elementary schools, these dogs provide comfort to young students who may be homesick and can also help struggling readers feel more at ease during class.

Each school will identify one staff member as a handler. This handler will work directly with the dog to keep up with training and provide care for them outside of school. Highly-trained Priority Pups™ and their handlers work alongside students and staff to not only provide educational support but also social and emotional learning. They are trained to assist teachers in many ways and can even play an intricate role in curriculum planning.

The dogs have proven to be helpful in various academic aspects. For example, students who may have trouble engaging in lessons due to a learning disability or lack of self-confidence are much more likely to participate if the dog is present.

In terms of social and emotional learning, through commands like “cuddle” or “hugs,” the dogs can provide nonjudgmental support and a listening ear for students who are nervous to voice their thoughts and ideas. Additionally, dogs serve as an icebreaker for students who struggle to enter social situations.

Staff and students involved in special education can utilize the dogs in speech, occupational and physical therapy to aid in developing gross and fine motor skills and speech and language abilities.  Students report that they enjoy participating more when they can interact with the dog while learning. In fact, special education staff report being able to engage students who had previously refused therapy, which in turn relieves stress and anxiety for both staff members and parents who want to see their children thrive.

The dogs can help decrease the likelihood of violence and bullying in schools by bringing students together to plan events around the dog such as assemblies for the dog’s birthday party which brings together all social groups in the school. Facility dogs can serve as behavior incentives to decrease behavioral challenges and increase self-esteem in students. They can also be used to deescalate difficult situations between students.

How does impact the Priority Pups™ greater community?

The answer is absolutely! Facility dogs are utilized to promote community building by attending important community events outside of school, such as school sporting events, parades, and festivities. Students take pride in their school’s dog and often cheer for their school’s dog during parades and celebrations. The entire community comes together over a new pup in schools and its positive impact on the students, staff, and parents. Priority Pups™ offer a sense of community for hundreds of people in and outside of school.

In addition, Priority Pups™ provide a positive emotional and psychological impact for students experiencing anxiety in classroom settings. Facility dogs have been found to reduce physiological symptoms of stress by lowering cortisol levels and increasing positive emotions. Priority Pups™ can reduce negative behaviors like task avoidance and student aggression in schools by promoting engagement in educational activities and encouraging positive attitudes toward learning.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of Priority Pups™ will be the effect on students’ social and emotional development. Loving and lovable, dogs are friendly companions and good listeners who remain non-judgmental. Children bond easily with Priority Pups™, helping them feel more connected and confident in school settings.

By adding the pups in schools, the Priority Pups™ program is lending a hand and paw to those struggling with mental health throughout Michigan. Priority Pups™ will serve in schools as motivators, confidence boosters, role models, and a social bridge to facilitate communication inside and outside of the classroom.


About the Author: Dr. Nikki Brown, Executive Director, Canines for Change 

Nikki has been training dogs for over 15 years. She owned and operated Premier K-9, a dog training school in Grand Ledge, MI from 2003 to 2012. She holds two master’s degrees from Michigan State University in Counseling and School Psychology and has completed her PhD with an emphasis on behavior modification. Her education and years of experience training pet dogs as well as training and breeding police dogs makes her an expert in the field. Nikki has titled many dogs to high levels in various sports such as agility, UKC obedience, K9 Pro Sports, and Protection Sports Association. She has also competed in Schutzhund. Nikki has also earned several Canine Good Citizen and Therapy Dogs International titles.