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By Renee Summers
Telegram Reporter 

River Rouge Schools Celebrates Grand Opening of the District's Pup Culture Lab


January 26, 2023

A ribbon cutting ceremony was part of the fun at the Grand Opening of the Pup Culture Lab at River Rouge's STEM Academy.

On Saturday, January 21, the River Rouge Schools hosted an Open House and Grand Opening event to showcase the district's Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI) Program. The celebration was held at the River Rouge STEM Academy on Burke Street and included a luncheon, raffles, a brief presentation about the Animal-Assisted Interventions Program, a ribbon-cutting, and an opportunity for guests to tour the Pup Culture Lab, the new home for the district's service-trained facility dogs.

The origins of the AAIProgram began when Superintendent Dr. Derrick Coleman introduced a "comfort dog" at Ann Visger Elementary Academy. A few years later in 2021, the district established a school-based AAI program headed by Shakesha Alexander, designed to help support students' daily social and emotional needs.The program currently maintains seven dogs, all of whom work in some capacity as a therapy dog in each of the district's school buildings. Each dog has a primary and secondary handler who they go home with at the end of the school day.Four arrived as puppies early in 2022 and went through the AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy Training Program. All have received or are in the process of receiving their AKC Urban Canine Good Citizen Certification.

"Our animal-assisted interventions program is a very, very unique one and probably the first of its type in the United States," said Bacari Alexander, District Coordinator for Culture, Health, and Wellness. He added that when the four puppies arrived, socializing them in the school and having them in close contact with people provided a benefit for both the animals and the students."All of these things are designed to help regulate children emotionally to give them a fighting chance to enjoy their day. There are students right now that show up to schools with great enthusiasm because it's their turn to help out in the Pup Culture Lab. If something like that impacts something as simple as attendance, responsibility, empathy; when you've got to care for something other than yourself, what does that do in a child that's doing that year after year, up until senior year? It builds a whole person."

Guest speaker for the event, Dr. Janet Hoy-Gerlach spoke on the scientific aspects of relationships with animals. A professor, researcher, and author, Hoy-Gerlach commended district leaders on their work in the AAI Program and confirmed that the program in River Rouge is the first school facility dog training center in the nation to be located in a school. "Studies of dogs in schools are showing a range of benefits. Young people's moods tend to improve around animals and when we feel better we can do better, so students can engage better in learning,"Hoy-Gerlach, an expert on the human-animal bond said. "They help students come from a heightened (stressed) state down to a calm stage and they are able to focus better. Studies suggest students are able to maintain concentration and motivation. More positive interactions with animals translate into more positive interactions with other people."

Ms. Alzayadi and Rumi pose for a photo in the Pup Culture Lab.

The Pup Culture Lab is a renovated classroom furnished with sofas, pillows, table and chairs to create a warm environment that contributes to relaxation as students and staff visit with the dogs, read, or work on schoolwork. In addition to providing a learning and healing environment, the new space will serve as the AAI Program Headquarters as well. Alexander says anyone interested in visiting the Pup Culture Lab and seeing what is happening in River Rouge Schools is welcome to stop by. Call the district office at 313-297-9600 to find out more.


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