More than a man’s best friends


Maria Pushart

Pike and her boys, Mario (right), and Sidney (left) pose in the sunshine of K-Pod.

Walking into the career study center to meet with Mrs. Patrica Pike, it was as if I had stepped into a playful wrestling ring between two fluffy, caramel-colored, golden retrievers, Mario and Sidney.

Mario, who is three years old, and Sidney, who is ten, are therapy dogs owned by Pike, who also happens to be their handler. She’s had them since they were puppies and has raised them alongside her two daughters.

“My husband and I and my two daughters, we wanted goldens because they’re very family-oriented, very calming dogs and just really good, the breed itself,” Pike shared.

Therapy dogs have to be at least a year old to do training and have to be recertified every year with programs provided by organizations such as the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, which is what Pike used. They don’t go through rigorous testing each year as long as they maintain volunteer work and go through three observations, visiting specific settings and seeing how the dog behaves and responds to their handler. Right before Covid, Sidney was certified and doing volunteer work in places like assisted living homes, but with the pandemic making no one able to go out, Sidney had to be recertified.

“I knew when Sidney was little that he had just had that personality of, like, love to be pet, and he was like an old soul at a very young age… [He] just always made people feel happy, and the entire neighborhood, he would walk around and he would go up to people, they pet him, so I was like, you know, he probably going to be a good therapy dog someday and I was a counselor I was like, it makes sense,” Pike said.

Therapy dogs differ from service dogs in the sense that they are there to be pet, sit with, and be met with. Service dogs have a specific task they are trained for, like how police dogs or seeing eye dogs are not supposed to be disturbed. You can tell the difference between the two based on the labels the dogs carry on their vests.

“Their whole purpose is to interact with you… if you are struggling, they just kind of wanna make you feel happy; even if in you’re in a good day they make you feel better… it’s kinda like a sensory thing when [kids] start petting them, it takes their mind off of what was triggering” Pike stated.

The dog’s role is to provide mental relief, whether someone is feeling anxious or sad, which can arise from a multitude of events such as the loss of a loved one or a big surgery about to happen. You can find therapy dogs in all sorts of environments like hospitals, but it’s extremely helpful to have them in a school, which is a huge stressor in many people’s lives.

“I think how they service best is if someone is struggling and wants and likes dogs and isn’t allergic or fears them, sit with them for a couple minutes – you really don’t need a long time – and really, the dog needs a break after 45 minutes cause they need their own time… and whoever is working with [the kid] can judge that they’re okay and they’re better it’s also nice too just knowing there’s a place if someone wants to see the dog for a minute that if its fits in their day you can do that” Pike stated.

Currently, Pike spends three days a week at Northbridge, and her other days bouncing around schools such as Pennbrook, Pennfield, and the high school, or wherever she’s requested. Her role as a transitional counselor is to facilitate kids from Northbridge returning or transitioning to their original school. With spending so much time at Northbridge, the dogs have become accustomed to the building so well that Mario can hold the leash himself and give tours around.

“I think kids with attendance issues, I’ve been seeing that they wanna come when [Mario’s] there… even staff, it makes a big difference for staff to just see them, have a couple of minutes… I’ve had bus drivers come off the bus to come and see the dogs,” Pike added.

As much as people love seeing the dogs, the dogs love it too, since they are social animals and it gives them a purpose. Therapy dog training takes the natural social- and empathy-aspects of dogs and refines the dog’s behavior so there are none of the bothersome characteristics like barking or licking.

“[Mario’s] vest, he only wears this when he goes to work… when I put this on, he knows he’s going to work… he’s learned when it’s on, ‘okay, I have a job to do,’” Pike conveyed.

Mario and Sidney are not just doing the basis of volunteer work, visiting hospitals and assisted living homes; they have been made responders, and are part of the Traumatic Event Response Team (TERT).

“They are part of the team now, so if there is a community crisis or a crisis in one of the buildings that needed to have our team come out, one of the dogs would come too, and that part of the mental health end of the crisis being able to help in that end,” Pike said.

Pike is very excited to integrate the dogs into the North Penn school community and wants to include them in more events like having the dogs present before AP exams. With the school board approving the policy of having therapy dogs in buildings, she aims to have at least one dog designated for each school.

“I’m hopeful that this is just the start of it and that we’ll have more in different buildings at times and I want everyone who is struggling to know that it helps and that they’re here…the district is great with knowing it’s important and they’ve seen the data, the research about them, so I’m just really grateful that we have a supportive school district that really supports mental health” Pike voiced.

For those who want to get in contact with Pike and the dogs, ask your teacher or guidance counselor for her email to set up a meeting. Please note that only one dog comes per meeting.