High school is never easy, but Huntington High School’s therapy dog Charlie is there to make it easier.
“You can’t be sad around Charlie,” says senior member of the school’s drug free club Megan Shiltz. “He won’t let that happen.”
Counselor Anita Rogers introduced the friendly, floppy golden doodle to the small Chillicothe school in February 2019.
In November 2017, the son of Rogers’ close family friend committed suicide. Three months later, Rogers’ father also took his life.
“That whole year was really traumatic and really a blur,” Rogers says.
There were days that Rogers couldn’t bring herself to get off the couch. Her suffering affected her teenage boys, the eldest of which begged her incessantly for a new puppy. Rogers finally gave into his demands, and Charlie joined the family.
Rogers had always wanted to train a therapy dog, but it was tucked away in her drawer of retirement ideas. Once she saw Charlie’s unwavering happy mood and goofy temperament, Rogers decided to take the leap. Charlie’s extensive training involved visiting a grief group at Ohio University Chillicothe twice a week along with an 18-week program with American Kennel Club.
“[Charlie] created a lot of happiness in my house after what we had been through,” Rogers says. “I wanted to take something terrible that has happened in my life and use Charlie to help me build relationships with students, so maybe they don’t go down that same path with depression and anxiety.”
In the rural, poverty-ridden region of southeastern Ohio, many students struggle with a lack of resources, hindering their ability to get the mental health care they need. Rogers, who is licensed as both a school counselor and a mental health counselor, does everything within her power to make Huntington High School a “one stop shop” for students struggling with mental health issues.
“Because of our setting, we have to be able to provide those mental health resources within the school. And if it’s more than what I can address, we have some agencies built in that come in and work with the kids in the school. Because transportation’s an issue,” Rogers says. “A lot of these kids, their parents are not going to take them in town to get counseling because they just don’t have the gas.”
Rogers immediately noticed Charlie’s impact on struggling students. Sophomore Madison Almonte needed some motivation, and Charlie was able to provide that.
“Last year, before we had Charlie, I was failing every class,” Almonte says. “And then when we got Charlie, it just made me do better.”
Charlie has also helped to forge unlikely friendships between reserved students like Almonte and extroverts like Shiltz.
“Madison’s really come out of her shell,” Rogers says. “I see a lot more of Madison now that Charlie’s around.”
Shiltz has down days too, and it’s Charlie to the rescue.
“Last year I had a really hard time,” Shiltz says. “I had gone into a panic attack at school. And I sat down in the office and Charlie just laid with me the whole time. And it just really helped to calm me down … focusing on just petting Charlie.”
Charlie works as a unifying force for the Huntington student body. He makes appearances at club meetings, sporting events and even recruitment week for Drug Free Club of which Shiltz is a member.
“Before Charlie came, we were all just here,” Shiltz says. “But now that we have Charlie, it brings us all together. Seniors to freshman.”
Other schools in the surrounding area have followed Huntington’s lead, getting their own therapy dogs, but several Huntington students expressed that they don’t believe other schools could replicate the bond they share with Charlie.
“He’s not a dog; he’s a friend,” says junior Lincoln Grubb.
Rogers is pleased to see Charlie touch so many lives. One of Charlie’s most impactful moments, she recalls, was in a visit with a student who had been having suicidal thoughts. The student had his guard up in previous visits with Rogers, but with Charlie’s non-threatening presence, Rogers was able to ease him into sharing his struggle, so that she could get him the help he needed.
“He breaks the ice of conversation between me and that person,” Rogers says.
Charlie has been the key to exploring just how impactful Rogers can be in her position.
“He’s really impacted the culture of the school and I know he’s really impacted some individual students,” says Rogers. “It’s helped me a lot knowing that I can do something to help other people.”