On the first day Marjory Stoneman Douglas students returned to class following the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at the Parkland, Florida, high school that claimed the lives of 17 students and staff members, a troop of therapy dogs were there to greet them. These canines, and one therapy pig, have continued to visit the school every day since, so there is rarely a moment when MSD students are far from the comforting presence of a trained therapy animal.
“These dogs just want to love and be loved,” Sarah Lerner, a senior English teacher and yearbook adviser at MSD tells PEOPLE of the 20 therapy dogs who routinely visit the high school.
To show their appreciation for the hours of cuddles, tear-drying smiles and attentive listening sessions these animals and their handlers have volunteered over the past 15 months, the school decided to include the dogs in their 2019 yearbook.
Many of the therapy dogs appear, with their fur fluffed and their vests on, in professional school photos on their very own page in the yearbook.
“We had six or seven dogs in here at one time. It was the greatest day of my life,” says Lerner of the pooch photo session, which occurred on a photo retake day. The advisor was excited to include the therapy dogs this year, since they were unable to get the dogs into the 2018 yearbook.
“These kids are so excited to see them forever in their yearbook,” she says, adding that many of the students have been asking the therapy dogs to sign their yearbooks.
Unfortunately, not every MSD therapy dog made it for the photo shoot and onto the yearbook page, but Lerner knows their impact will never be forgotten by the school.
“I hope they will stay forever,” Lerner says the of the therapy animals, who came from four different therapy dog organizations, Share-A-Pet, Canine Assisted Therapy, Therapy Dogs International and Animal Assisted Therapy of the Humane Society of Broward County.
To honor all the therapy animals who have helped Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School heal after tragedy, PEOPLE spoke with their handlers, including a former MSD student, about their most moving memories from their time volunteering at the school.
Handler: Lori Bale
“Five years ago, we were advised to put our bearded Collie down because she had liver cancer. Daisy is now 15, resilient and proving everyone wrong,” Bale says of her loving pup. “She has made so many people happy with her therapy work. Our most rewarding and humbling experience has been helping the students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, they have become our extended family. We know these kids are just as resilient as Daisy and will get through the difficult times.”
Handler: Melinda Steinbaher
Emma walked a hard road to get where she is today. She was abandoned in a box as a puppy in Puerto Rico. Luckily, she was rescued and brought to the United States, where she was eventually adopted and trained as a therapy dog.
“Emma was initially called into MSD with Crisis Canines, immediately after the shooting, to help with the teachers, police, and staff that were affected directly by the shooting,” Steinbaher tells PEOPLE.
Emma stayed at MSD to continue assisting the students as they returned to school.
“I always remember the first day of school, when there was a feeling of dread, fear and sadness at the school opening their gates for the first time since the shooting,” Emma’s handler adds. “But once the students realized there were therapy dogs in most of the classrooms, you could hear them running down the hallways, excited to see which dog was in which class, and that they couldn’t wait to go to their classes to see the dogs.”
Handler: Grace Briden
Briden, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas at the time of the 2018 mass shooting, was inspired to help others based on her interactions with the therapy dogs at her school.
“Being a student in high school and going through a school shooting was one of the scariest experiences in my life. I never wanted to go back to school and I didn’t think I ever could,” Briden says. “Walking to school on the first day back I was filled with dread and fear. Then I saw a sea of dogs filling the courtyard of school. I was immediately relieved to see all the adorable dogs.”
“All the amazing therapy dogs inspired me to train my own dog to be a therapy dog. Duncan and I have visited nursing homes, schools, foster homes, and libraries,” she adds. “Being able to spread love and happiness with him has really help me cope with my guilt and sadness from the shooting, especially by being able to spread love at my own school after everything that happened.”
Handler: Yvonne McAlpin
“The bond between Chief and the students at MSD is miraculous. Chief has been a therapy dog for three years and when he puts on his vest, he does so with a loving purpose: to make a positive impact on the world, one student at a time,” the golden retriever’s handler says. “He gives kisses and sits on laps in exchange for belly rubs and massages, spreading love and comfort to everyone he meets.”
For Chief, the best memories from his time at MSD are the sweet, simple moments, according to McAlpin, like the “classes with his buddies, lunches with his friends, and his heart-warming prom proposal to his high school sweetheart, Molly, which went viral on Twitter.”
Handler: Russ Sultenfuss
Along with the impact his dog has had on MSD students, Sultenfuss is moved by the effect Annie has had on the adults at the high school.
The handler specifically remembers comforting a teacher who witnessed the death of three of her students and meeting the “mother of an eleventh grader who told me that her daughter would not have returned to MSD if not for the presence of the canines.”
Handler: Mary Cullinan
Cullinan has realized the true magic of therapy animals through her work with Fergie at MSD.
“The fourth day back to school after the shooting, I was asked to bring Fergie to a Spanish class because there was going to be a boy who had lost his brother,” she says. “We walked in, I unleashed her and she walked around the room greeting all the kids.”
“She finally stopped where two desks were shoved together and six kids were playing games. She went under those desks, picked two feet out of the 12 under there and laid on them. After about 30 minutes, I said to the teacher, ‘She hasn’t moved off that boy’s feet.’ She said to me, ‘That is the brother.’ I had no idea, but Fergie had found him.”
Handler: Kim Heller
“Molly is a Labrador retriever who has two emotions: love and happiness,” Heller says of her dog.
Molly had no trouble putting those feelings to use at the high school.
“She has made some very special connections with students who even FaceTime her on evenings and weekend,” Heller adds. “To know that she brings smiles and healing to the community is extremely humbling.”
Handler: Linda Berindei
Berindei knew her 7-year-old mini goldendoodle would be able to bring some comfort to the students and staff of MSD, but there were still moments of tenderness that surprised her.
“Each visit brought a special moment or connection with both students and teachers,” she says. “The most poignant memory was watching Jessie console a student who had been directly injured that terrible day. Every time the student would reach down to pet Jessie, my heart would melt.”
Handler: Deb Davis
Davis has always been told that there is something special about her 14-year-old golden retriever therapy dog, and at MSD she saw that special something shine.
Schooner helped the students of MSD heal and grieve by offering them hugs, letting them braid his tail and by accompanying them to the school’s Wellness Center.
“Such a pleasure, such a privilege, such a profound journey,” Davis says of her times at the school with Schooner. “Schooner and I thank you, MSD, from the bottom of our hearts.”
Handler: Christine Geschwill
Grace’s time at MSD has served as a meaningful end to her 10-year career as a therapy dog. The canine, who is preparing for retirement, and Geschwill are thankful that they were able to make a difference.
“In the 10 years we have been doing therapy work, nothing has been more rewarding to her than the work she did at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. It is beyond fathomable that she was needed at all, but I am forever grateful that she was able to fulfill her purpose in such a meaningful way,” Geschwill says.
Handler: Donna Levy
Sophie’s smile lit the way for many students struggling with returning to school following the shooting.
“Students would stop me to say they didn’t want to come to school, but only came to see Sophie and the other therapy dogs,” Levy says.
“So many students and parents have told me how much Sophie has helped them to cope and shift their thoughts to something positive.”
Handler: Gail Policella
Policella “quickly realized” how much Lila, a 4-year-old rescue golden retriever, was helping when she and the therapy dog arrived at MSD immediately after the shooting.
Now, after 15 months of assisting students and staff members, Policella says she and Lila have “proudly witnessed their need for us decreasing.”
The work has inspired Lila to start training to become a Crisis Canine, which, according to her handler, is one level up from therapy dog work.
Handler: Diana Haneski
River, a mini Bernerdoodle, was given as a sympathetic gift to Haneski, a media teacher at MSD, following the shooting. After witnessing the emotional support that River provided her and her husband, Haneski brought River to the school as a therapy-dog-in-training.
“Students come to the library for more than books and information, they stop for a few moments to pet River,” Haneki says.
“The MSD community has watched River grown and learn just like the students.”
Handler: Jane Eisenberg
“Kol is a 9-year-old golden retriever who has a unique way of turning tears into smiles,” Eisenberg says.
Recently, Kol has been using this superpower to cheer up students at the benches outside the cafeteria.
“He brings a sense of calm to a room and makes the students, faculty and staff at MSD feel completely at ease during tense and emotional times,” his handler says. “It has been an honor and a privilege to serve the community of Parkland.”
Handler: Chris Ellis
This pair of canine siblings are both gifted listeners, spending their time at MSD offering handshakes, a place to rest one’s head and a friend to hug.
Ellis says it has been amazing to see the impact the dogs have had on the students and the healing they have helped to provide.
Now, 15 months after the shooting, Ellis has noticed more MSD students “singing, clapping and cheering” than ever before.
Handler: Lolita Bueno
Zoe is a rescue dog that found her calling as a therapy animal, according to her handler.
“As soon as we drive into the school parking lot, it’s as if she knows what her purpose is. Zoe pulls me with excitement toward the entrance, wagging her tail at full speed in anticipation of seeing her student friends,” Bueno says. “Their faces light up when they see Zoe and they ask to hold her. She even has her own trading card that is popular with the students and staff.”
Handler: Jill Cross
Astro, a rescue Schnauzer, loves to chase seagulls in his free time, but is all about being “extremely mellow” when he is on the job.
“His favorite activity is to sit in a student’s lap and snuggle. He’s great at absorbing the energy from the students, especially those who do not necessarily show their feelings,” Cross says of Astro’s time at MSD. “When not searching out students around the courtyard to elicit attention, Astro visits the Special Education classrooms. The students are always happy to see the therapy dogs. I’m not sure who feels better after a visit, the students or myself.”
Handler: Tiffany Aaron
Aaron calls her time at MSD with her therapy pets, Lulu the three-legged greyhound and Patches the pig, something that is “unlike any experience.” It is a unique experience that has only strengthened her belief in the healing power of animals.
“The wet kisses, tail wagging, oinking, and countless selfies taken is proof these pets are providing unconditional love and support to so many,” she says. “Knowing your pets were the reason someone smiled that day makes every minute spent there worthwhile.”
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