Holy Trinity adopts a canine counselor

Harper Miller and Alayna Schmitt, from left, spent a moment with Marley in their first-grade classroom at Holy Trinty School. Marley, who joined the Holy Trinity community last spring, is a therapy dog that brings emotional support to students. (Record Photos by Jessica Able)

A new staff member at Holy Trinity School, 423 Cherrywood Road, brings joy and smiles to students and staff alike as he trots the hallways of the school.

Marley, an Aussie Doodle with a bright white coat and perpetual smile, is the school’s new therapy dog. He serves alongside his co-handler Laura Probus, the school’s counselor.

Marley joined the Holy Trinity community at the end of last school year. Probus has been working for a number of years to create an animal-assisted therapy program at the St. Matthews school.

“I’ve seen the impact of therapy dogs in hospital settings. I thought it would be such a positive impact for our school,” said Probus in an interview last week at the school.

Marley’s main focus right now is helping to alleviate any anxiety or stress students may deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Anxiety, whether it’s induced by testing, social interactions or deeper underlying issues, is on the rise among children, Probus noted. And, therapy dogs, such as Marley, can help to alleviate some of the effects.

Dogs provide numerous benefits to humans, Probus noted. Therapy dogs in particular can increase empathy and compassion, improve self esteem and reduce anxiety in situations that are stressful, she added.

Marley’s other co-handler is Courtney Billig, a second-grade teacher at Holy Trinity. Marley lives with the Billig family.

“He’s been a joy for my family. We’ve wanted a dog for a long time and he came into our lives at the right time,” Billig said.

It was important to Probus to acquire a therapy dog that had been a rescue. And, it was important for the dog to be hypoallergenic, Probus said, because of student allergies.

“There are so many dogs that need good homes. I always encourage people to consider rescuing a dog before purchasing one,” she said.

Marley was surrendered by his first family and ended up with Pawsibilities Unleashed, a therapy dog program in Frankfort. He received extensive training and is a certified therapy dog.

Will Stewart and Ruby Lilla, fifth-graders at Holy Trinity School looked at a book in the library as they snuggled next to Marley, the school’s therapy dog.

Before coming to Holy Trinity, he worked for a period of time with Paw and Order, a prison dog training program.

The cost for Marley was $2,500, which was donated by a former parent at the school. Holy Trinity and the Billig family share his annual expenses.

At the beginning of the year, parents sign a consent form indicating whether or not their child can interact with Marley. The school also carries liability insurance on Marley.

The response from students and teachers alike, Probus said, has been overwhelmingly positive.

He visits classrooms, the library and the playground. He even had a part in the school’s Nativity performance — He played a sheep.

Students say Marley brings joy and warmth to the school. Fifth-grader Will Stewart said when he sees Marley around school, he feels happy.

“When I’m down, I go and see Marley. When I go in to take a test and I’m nervous, once I see Marley I know I will do okay,” he said.

Abby Sims, a second-grader, said she enjoys reading to Marley. And Kevin Klein, also in second-grade, said being around Marley helps him calm down.

Principal Jack Richards said having the therapy dog at school brings a “little bit of home to school.”

“Instead of an institutional-type place, Marley brings some familiarity because many kids have some sort of pet at home,” he said.

More importantly, Marley brings a sense of calm to students who are overwhelmed, Richards said.

“For those students who are anxious or are having a rough day, being around Marley brings them back to the present,” he said. “Their brains may be spinning and worrying about what’s next but he allows them to be in the moment.”

Several other schools in the Archdiocese of Louisville have therapy dogs. Sacred Heart Academy and Mercy Academy both have full-time therapy dogs like Marley. Assumption High School and St. Leonard School, among others, have therapy dogs that visit the schools periodically, Probus said.

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