One day, a student at Mountainside secondary went to the counsellor’s office when he was feeling low. Dervish, the certified assistance dog there, seemed to understand this.
“Right at the beginning, he came right down on the couch and just rested his head in my arm, fell asleep,” the student said. “That really helped me calm down.”
Other kids share the same sentiment. Walking through the halls, students naturally come to greet and pat Dervish. Some call him a “good vibes dog.”
Mountainside is a small, alternative high school in North Lonsdale, housed at the former Balmoral Junior Secondary.
Attendance enforced by mainstream schools can be a barrier for some students, and isn’t required of the roughly 120 kids at Mountainside.
While social pressures and a structured learning environment can be deterrents, dogs are often a reason to go.
“The dogs are a really big motivation for me to come to school,” the student explained, referencing Dervish and a few other non-professional pooches that staff sometimes bring.
'He provides an opportunity for students to feel safe'
Most canines can be a comforting presence, but Dervish belongs to a relatively new class of service dogs trained to be a support in schools or other settings where multiple people require care.
Traditionally, guide and assistance dogs are assigned to an individual. On the other hand, facility dogs are trained to work in settings like hospices and the justice system, supporting different individuals when needed.
Dervish has been trained by Pacific Assistance Dogs Society to help children with extra support needs in schools.
While he’s attentive and quickly obeys a number of commands, Dervish’s core skill set involves self-control and his ability to connect with students.
“We see students with a lot of trauma, who might not want to or be ready to talk,” said Mary Sparks, a counsellor at Mountainside. “He provides an opportunity for students to feel safe, calm and grounded, in terms of just being close to him.”
And the bonds he makes with students create compelling reasons to come to school.
“For many reasons, attendance is really hard for students to walk through the door, or if they're feeling really anxious or socially anxious,” Sparks said.
"Often, attendance is a reason that mainstream schools don't work. But they find that this is one reason to come.”
Sparks applied to receive a facility dog a few years ago, after hearing about them through a colleague. After sitting on a waiting list, she began training with Dervish last December before he fully moved in with her in January.
Dervish is trained so that people can be all over him and he'll remain calm. He'll also refuse food. But he still does normal dog things. Sparks takes him hiking and for runs with his buddy dog Oscar.
“He has lots of fun,” she said. “He supports me too [by] grounding me. He gets me outside, taking a break. Or I walk with kids outside, and then I'm moving myself so I probably am healthier for him – physically healthier and [mentally].”
“Yeah, and I have fallen in love with him.”