‘He belongs to the whole school’: Students and staff at Ridgewood’s P.S. 81 celebrate their comfort dog

Photo: Mark Hallum/QNS

Cypress the comfort dog has earned his keep among staff and students alike at P.S. 81 in Ridgewood since being adopted in October. As such, a large celebration was in order at the school to recognize his first birthday.

With the front of the school decked out in balloons, ribbons and photos of Cypress — the little dog named for the street on which the school is located — the Department of Education (DOE) sanctioned animal’s impact on the emotional well-being of students was not understated.

Principal Romy Diamond says Cypress is a natural in his role, being able to identify when children are in distress and coming in for some cuddle time.

Cypress makes the rounds at the school by starting with special education classes before migrating over to the speech class, where the students find enjoyment in reading to him, according to Diamond. Cypress then takes a break and rests with some of the teachers.

“He’s a community baby, he belongs to the whole school,” Diamond said. “This one, he’s actually amazing. If children have meltdowns, he sits with them. He stays perfectly calm, they pet him. If they’re having a bad day, they’ll take him for a walk … I’m going to be honest, when [Cypress] came and he was a little less than six pounds, I thought this was not the dog for my school and this is not the dog for me. My mother wants him to be renamed Magic because everyone falls in love with him, he makes everybody smile. Every single person adores him; he’s gentle and he’s outstanding in classes.”

Many of the staff attribute Cypress’ calm demeanor to his ability to comfort the students.

The DOE’s comfort dog program is expanding across the city with schools with a high concentration of homeless or special education students taking priority for the first programs so far.

“Whether it’s a reading buddy or a warm welcome on a hard day, comfort dogs have an impact on school communities, contributing to students’ academic and social-emotional well-being,” Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in October 2018, when Cypress was brought into the program. “This is an exciting and innovative program, and I’m thrilled that we’re expanding it.”

Ikumi Nakajima, an outreach manager with North Shore Animal League, said the program started almost by accident in 2016 when Shellbank Middle School in Brooklyn received a visit from the organization and one of the teachers decided to adopt one of the dogs.

“Next thing we know, the dog is hanging out in the school everyday, and we said ‘we have got to turn this into a program,’” Nakajima said. “The piloted comfort dog program and the turnout was so amazing that the DOE wanted to add more schools. They wanted to add 30 schools which is really difficult, but we did it.”

Samantha Gonzalez, a fifth grader at P.S. 81, had written an essay that led to the school adopting a comfort dog while, Lesly Rueda Ramales, a second grader, had the idea for to have a party celebrating Cypress’ birthday.

Nakajima added that while not all dogs are a good match for the comfort dog program, such as high energy dogs, the best candidates can be older dogs with developed personalities.

Another school, he mentioned, even has an older rottweiler mix for their school, something he believes defeats the stereotype of the breed being physically aggressive.

School staff taking older dogs as comfort animals for students also helps the animals who would not usually get adopted find a home.

P.S. 75, Corona Arts and Sciences Academy, P.S. 120, P.S. 209, P.S. 76, The Riverview School and I.S. 204 are just a few among the schools in Queens to host comfort dogs.

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