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“Who’s a good boy?” WHS therapy dog, Odin works hard to support students’ mental health

If you’re looking through the staff section of a Westminster High School yearbook, you might be surprised to discover the fluffy face of a 90-pound Bernese Mountain Dog. Odin is a specially trained therapy animal who spends Monday through Friday assisting WHS social worker Gabbi Mattisson. “He’s part of the building. He works here and gets paid in love and treats!”

Mattisson first thought of incorporating animals into her interventions with kids after learning in grad school about how effective it can be. Even as a puppy, Odin showed signs that he had what it takes to go through rigorous training and achieve Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certification. Students and teachers regularly stop by Mattissons’s office to get a snuggle or a pet from the friendly giant between classes.

dog lying on carpet

One such student is Kai Stark, a sophomore who says being with Odin helps him with his anxiety. Kai sits cross-legged on the floor of Mattisson’s office. His face and body are calm as Odin flops over and reaches his huge paws into the air. “I come down here when I’m feeling anxious,” Stark says, “I ask my teacher to use my pressure pass so I can come here and calm down.” Stark also suffered from anxiety in his younger years, but no animal therapy was available. He says that if he had known that Odin was at WHS he would have felt less nervous about the transition to high school.

Visiting with Odin used to be considered a Tier 3 intervention- meaning that a student had to demonstrate a specific need. After two years of Covid restrictions, however, it became clear that high schoolers' mental health was steeply declining. As students readjusted to in-person learning, Mattisson decided that every tool, including Odin, should be available to everyone.

“This is his job,” explains Mattisson proudly, “to receive love and to give love back.”