English teacher Holly Van Tassel-Schuster holds Kodo, her bearded dragon. Adopted in 2022, Kodo was trained by Van Tassel-Schuster to ensure he would be safe to bring to school.
English teacher Holly Van Tassel-Schuster holds Kodo, her bearded dragon. Adopted in 2022, Kodo was trained by Van Tassel-Schuster to ensure he would be safe to bring to school.
Carolina Ochoa Lozano

Pets and service animals assist MSD students and staff emotionally through their unique personalities

Therapy dog River sits quietly in the media center while her owner, media specialist Diana Haneski, works. Haneski adopted River as her therapy dog in 2018.
River

In June 2018,  Media Specialist Diana Haneski adopted 3-month-old River as a therapy dog for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She offers support and community building to students and staff with her services. River can sense panic attacks and anxiety symptoms through facial expressions, posture and tone of voice. In response, she is trained to hug or offer to be petted. Her playful personality is known to reduce the anxiety of students and staff.

River not only volunteers at the school library, but at hospitals as well. She occasionally visits classrooms to provide emotional assistance to students. Her favorite things to do are to be petted, chased or given a Bully Stick.

Therapy dog River sits quietly in the media center while her owner, media specialist Diana Haneski, works. Haneski adopted River as her therapy dog in 2018. (Victoria Damaso)
Ash, a service dog for physical education teacher Lauren Rubenstein, poses for the camera. Ash underwent a service dog training program for post-traumatic stress disorder and was adopted by Rubenstein in 2021.
Ash

In response to the shooting at MSD on Feb. 14, 2018, physical education teacher Lauren Rubenstein concluded that a service dog would best help her navigate through her PTSD. In April 2021, she went through a service dog selection process with the Steadfast Service Dogs organization and adopted Ash, a female German shepherd, because of their evident bond.

Ash is specifically trained for blocking, a procedure in which she will block an individual from being too close to Rubenstein, creating natural space. She is currently in the training process for deep pressure therapy, which will allow her to alleviate anxiety by leaning or lying down on the handler.

Apart from providing service to Rubenstein, Ash also helps students and staff reduce anxiety levels by lying by their feet or offering to be petted.

Ash, a service dog for physical education teacher Lauren Rubenstein, poses for the camera. Ash underwent a service dog training program for post-traumatic stress disorder and was adopted by Rubenstein in 2021. (Victoria Damaso)
English teacher Holly Van Tassel-Schusters bearded dragon rests on Van Tassel-Schusters desk. Kodo was rescued by Van Tassel-Schuster in 2022.
Kodo

After receiving a grant to own classroom pets, Holly Van Tassel wanted to own a bearded dragon because they are friendly and convenient for students with allergies. She rescued Kodo, her bearded dragon, from abandonment at a drug recovery center in 2022. Van Tassel worked with Kodo until he would not bite from the previous stress he had endured.

“He is so easy to work with,”  Van Tassel said. “He’s not violent in any way…he’s just chill, and he’s very cool and he kinda just sits on you.”

Kodo is best described as a relaxed pet. He loves to eat mealworms or vegetables and rest in his tank. Occasionally, he will run around. Although Kodo initially received mixed reactions from students, they eventually grew accustomed to his calm personality.

English teacher Holly Van Tassel-Schuster’s bearded dragon rests on Van Tassel-Schuster’s desk. Kodo was rescued by Van Tassel-Schuster in 2022. (Carolina Ochoa Lozano)
Corgi Gidget sits beside culinary teacher Ashley Kurth. Kurth adopted Gidget, who is trained in pressure therapy and touch alert, in 2019.
Gidget

In Jan. 2019, culinary teacher Ashley Kurth adopted Gidget, a Pembroke Welsh corgi specialized to respond to dissociative and anxiety response disorders. Gidget is trained to respond to anxiety and dissociative spell symptoms through pressure therapy and touch alert.

“When I am on the verge of either having a panic attack or a dissociative spell related to my PTSD, she usually will indicate me with my leg before I have it,” Kurth said. “It’s an indicator of either sit and pet her or, typically speaking, when I’m at home, I’ll actually lay down and she provides pressure across my chest area. She’s like a walking blanket.”

Kurth’s favorite thing about Gidget is her sassy personality. Whenever Gidget wants to play, she will carry a toy to someone and sit directly on them. The corgi loves tennis balls, blueberries, cuddling and chasing squeaky objects. Gidget can be found in the culinary classroom on professional study days.

I think just in general for students to be around living creatures that provide a form of comfort or some form of companionship just makes it a little easier to deal with daily stress of life.

— Culinary teacher Ashley Kurth

Corgi Gidget sits beside culinary teacher Ashley Kurth. Kurth adopted Gidget, who is trained in pressure therapy and touch alert, in 2019. (Victoria Damaso)
Cutter, guidance counselor Jerry Turmaines service and therapy dog, relaxes in Turmaines office. Cutter was adopted by Turmaine in 2021 for his friendly personality.
Cutter

Cutter, a 2-year-old English cream golden retriever, is both a service and therapy dog for guidance counselor Jerry Turmaine. Turmaine had been looking for an English cream golden retriever to bring to school, and Cutter’s playful personality was the perfect fit. He was adopted by breeders in Georgia in 2021.

Turmaine describes Cutter as a “people person” because of his open friendliness towards people and animals he meets.

“He’s friendly with everybody,” Turmaine said. “He’s just happy to be around.”

Cutter enjoys playing, chasing a ball and most of all, swimming. When Cutter was a puppy, Turmaine took him on his scuba diving charter boat, on which he swam and relaxed.

Cutter, guidance counselor Jerry Turmaine’s service and therapy dog, relaxes in Turmaine’s office. Cutter was adopted by Turmaine in 2021 for his friendly personality. (Victoria Damaso)
A student in English teacher Holly Van Tassel-Schusters class pets Petunia, who stands beside her sister Daisy. Daisy and Petunia were Van Tassel-Schusters first classroom pets, and they alternate classroom visits with Van Tassel-Schusters bearded dragon, Kodo.
Daisy and Petunia

When English teacher Holly Van Tassel could not find rescued guinea pigs, she adopted Daisy and Petunia from her local pet store in the spring of 2021. Van Tassel chose Daisy for her mohawk and Petunia for her charm.

The guinea pigs love to play by chasing each other or climbing on top of each other. They are extremely vocal, especially when they are aware a student has their favorite treat: apples.

“When they smell apples or they know somebody has them, they’re going to be squeaking at the top of their lungs until somebody gives it to them,”  Van Tassel said.

Van Tassel believes it is important to have an emotional break during a busy day, such as petting her guinea pigs. Her favorite memory with Daisy and Petunia was finding them on Instagram after a student made a video of them dancing.

A student in English teacher Holly Van Tassel-Schuster’s class pets Petunia, who stands beside her sister Daisy. Daisy and Petunia were Van Tassel-Schuster’s first classroom pets, and they alternate classroom visits with Van Tassel-Schuster’s bearded dragon, Kodo. (Victoria Damaso)
Atticus, a service dog trained in pressure therapy and tactile stimulation, tilts his head at the camera in English teacher Felicia Burgins classroom. Burgin decided she wanted a service dog following a traumatic lockdown on Jan. 20, 2023.
Atticus

After English teacher Felicia Burgin endured a stressful lockdown on Jan. 20, 2023 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,–two weeks before the anniversary of Feb. 14–she became certain she wanted to own a service dog. On the same day as the lockdown, Atticus, a loving German shepherd was born.

Burgin adopted Atticus in April 2023 from the Steadfast Service Dog organization to aid her in coping with her PTSD from the shooting in 2018. He is trained in pressure therapy and tactile stimulation to reduce anxiety and promote grounding. If Burgin notices an upset student, with their permission, she will command Attie to give them a hug.

“Whatever Atti is doing for me, I am more than willing to share him with the kids…If somebody is feeling bad, he will be right there,” Burgin said.

Burgin describes Atticus as a friendly, energetic and happy animal. His favorite activities are fetching or snuggling with Burgin.

This story was originally published in the December 2023 Eagle Eye print edition.

Atticus, a service dog trained in pressure therapy and tactile stimulation, tilts his head at the camera in English teacher Felicia Burgin’s classroom. Burgin decided she wanted a service dog following a traumatic lockdown on Jan. 20, 2023. (Victoria Damaso)
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About the Contributors
Victoria Damaso, Multimedia Editor
Victoria Damaso is a sophomore at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She is a first-year reporter. She enjoys figure skating, listening to music and hanging out with friends in her free time.
Carolina Ochoa Lozano, Photo Editor, Humans of MSD Editor
Carolina Ochoa Lozano is a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She dances and is a member of the Spanish Club.
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