By Michele Hollow
Each morning, Cali, an 18-month-old Rhodesian Ridgeback, patiently waits for the K-12 students to pass through the doors of the Calais School in Whippany, N. J. As they walk by, Cali sniffs each one.
The students, about 85 in all, smile at the short-haired dog but know not to pet or distract her while she is working. Cali is a cortisol detection dog, trained to detect the stress hormone our adrenal glands secrete when we become anxious or stressed.
When we are agitated, cortisol levels in our bloodstream rise. It’s Cali’s job to let Casey Butler, her handler, know if a student’s cortisol levels are high. If they are, that student spends time talking with Ms. Butler and Cali to help defuse the stress. “The children feel safer with Cali around,” she explained. “They tend to open up more.”
Cali’s signals are so subtle that the students and other teachers waiting nearby rarely notice. But Ms. Butler, 25, pays close attention to see if Cali points with her nose and stares at a child.
Many of the students at Calais are on the autism spectrum; some have attention deficit disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and other challenges that can trigger anxiety and other difficult emotions.
Like most service dogs, Cali is extremely quiet and unassuming. “The students don’t like it when a dog jumps on them,” explained Ms. Butler, a health teacher who is a certified specialist in natural canine behavior rehabilitation and in animal adaptive therapy.
Cali was brought to the school last year from a local nonprofit called Merlin’s Kids that trains service dogs to work with special-needs children. “Some schools with a special-needs population have service dogs that visit and work with the students as a once-in-a-while activity,” said David Leitner, executive director of the Calais School. “We thought having a service dog on staff would benefit our students.”
It was a decision that was presented to the teachers and staff at the school, and met without opposition. “A lot of us know people with service dogs, and we have seen how beneficial they are,” said Diane Manno, the principal at Calais. “And in just a short time, we have seen how Cali has helped our students.”
When Cali spots an anxious student, and Ms. Butler asks the student whether he or she is feeling stressed, the typical response is “I’m O.K.” Ms. Butler counters by saying, “Cali told me otherwise.”
“They listen to her because Cali is nonthreatening, and they like being around her,” Ms. Butler said.
A ninth grader agreed. “Cali can help us cope with our problems so that we don’t have to get through it by ourselves,” she said. “She is loving, intuitive and goofy.”
A few weeks ago, in Ms. Butler’s office, Cali started pacing, alternately moving toward the door and nudging Ms. Butler. “She led me up one flight of stairs to the opposite end of the building, where we found a girl starting to have a meltdown,” she said.
Noticing Cali, the student asked if she could pet her. Ms. Butler told her not yet. “I first make sure Cali is safe,” she said. “Within a few minutes of seeing Cali, the student calmed down.” Only then does she reward students by letting them pet, brush and — sometimes — walk Cali.
It’s their uncanny sense of smell that allows dogs like Cali to detect rising cortisol levels in our sweat or breath, and identify a student having trouble even in a faraway classroom, said Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “Humans have 12 million smell receptors in their nose. At the lowest estimate, dogs have 800 million. Scent hounds like beagles and bassets have up to four billion. A dog’s ability to smell odors is beyond our comprehension.”
“We are proud of ourselves when we drive past Burger King and can smell that they are cooking burgers,” he said. “Dogs can smell a burger being cooked in the next town. That is why dogs are used to detect melanomas, diabetes and other types of disease. It’s all about the sense of smell.”
Cali can also detect when a student is faking. “I’ve had students come into my office saying they don’t feel well,” Ms. Butler said. “It’s not uncommon for a student to want to miss a class or a test. If Cali doesn’t signal when she sniffs them, I send them back to the classroom.”
At the end of the school day, the students board the buses back home, and Cali goes home with Ms. Butler. In a few weeks a second service dog will join the crew, a beagle named Cleo, an occupational and speech therapy dog. The students will work with Cleo to improve their fine motor skills by opening and closing the buttons and snaps on her harness, and will practice their oral and social skills by reading to her.
The students are eagerly standing by.