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Charlee, Rookie, and Casey: How De Pere Unified School District Has Gone to the Dogs

Tuesday, May 9, 2023
Charlee the school therapy chocolate lab greets a group of elementary school students
Charlee the chocolate lab is a very attentive reading pawtner for a De Pere elementary school student.

If you’ve ever owned a dog, you’ll understand the meaning of ‘man’s best friend.’ The soothing, loving nature of a well‐trained dog can immediately calm an environment, and has documented physical and emotional benefits to children and adults of all ages.

“Our students and staff are faced with challenges brought on by day‐to‐day living, some lingering impacts from the pandemic and overall social turmoil,” says Dickinson Elementary School Principal Luke Herlache. “Even though the Unified School District of De Pere has an excellent Student Services department and outstanding counselors, we felt it would benefit everyone to bring in another resource to help us address these challenges.”

In 2021, Herlache and his team spent several months researching the feasibility of adding a certified therapy dog to the district. Purchase, maintenance and training costs; managing interactions with students or staff with allergies; and creating a clearly defined role for the dog were among many issues analyzed before deciding to proceed. “Fortunately, many schools have successfully incorporated therapy dogs into their buildings, so we had a good path to follow,” he notes. Both De Pere High School and De Pere Middle School have therapy dogs in their buildings, but the dogs are owned and handled by staff members. A district‐owned therapy dog was a new approach to a proven effective support resource.

Once the purchase of the dog was approved by administrators and the Board of Education, attention turned to funding. Organizers of the district’s annual Redbird Rally and Family Fun Night eagerly jumped on the idea of donating proceeds from the popular event to support initial and on‐going costs. The district pays for costs that fundraising doesn’t cover.

Herlache and his team worked with a local therapy dog training specialist, Elite Canine Training & Outfitters, to identify a dog suited for the job. Once a puppy was selected, they began the months‐long process of training the dog, her primary handler (Dickinson teacher Lynessa Tlachac) and other district staff slated to work with Charlee, a chocolate lab.

Families were notified well in advance of Charlee’s arrival to address concerns about allergies and fears their children might have about the dogs. Local businesses provide enhanced grooming to reduce shedding and dander, the primary causes of allergic reactions.

Paws‐itive Reviews

Charlee the chocolate lab support dog greets elementary school students
Charlee is very comfortable having large groups of kids surrounding her. She also knows where her handler keeps the treats. Smart dog!

“Students have fallen in love with Charlee. They greet her any chance they get. I believe the staff enjoys Charlee just as much as the students,” says Dickinson’s Tlachac. “Charlee was trained to see praise as positive reinforcement, so she really loves any attention whether it’s just saying ‘hi,’ a belly rub, or snuggling up to comfort a student.

“Her morning starts by helping students who have a hard time transitioning to school. The students come into my classroom and sit with Charlee and pet her. This quiet transition time allows them to get ready for their day of learning. She then goes out to work with our aides. At times, she comforts students who are having a difficult day and other times she is used as an incentive for students who have done a good job staying on task.

"She helps calm students who are frustrated and sometimes she just gets to hang out and have students read books or their own writing to her.”

Adding to The Pack


Smiling mother golden retriever with tiny golden retriever puppies
Rookie and Casey were chosen as young puppies to follow in the pawprints of their role model, Charlee.

Charlee’s good “report card” and her visits to the district’s two other elementary schools quickly resulted in the leaders of those buildings requesting permission and funding for on‐site dogs at their schools. In late 2022, two golden retriever littermates were identified by a breeder in northwest Wisconsin as good candidates for school placement. “Rookie” and “Casey”, who are now just over seven months old, spend most of their days at Altmayer and Heritage Elementary schools respectively.

“We’re early in the training process,” says Mark Kirst, Altmayer Principal, and primary handler for Rookie.

“We’re following the process established with Charlee. For the first few months, our goal is to get Rookie and Casey acclimated to being in the buildings and to help them ignore distractions in the high‐energy environment of an elementary school.

“We’re coaching our students and staff as well, so they understand when Rookie or Casey are in the halls or classrooms they shouldn’t reach out to pet or cuddle them. As the dogs mature, progress in their training and ultimately get therapy dog certification we’ll have more flexibility with that.”

While all families have the choice to opt out of having their child interact with the therapy dogs, few have done so.

Rookie the golden retriever therapy puppy sits at attention in front of his handler
Rookie practices paying attention to his handler, Principal Kirst. Puppies and kids all get the wiggles!

“The students, families, staff and community have been overwhelmingly supportive,” says Herlache. “They see the therapeutic value, the joy and the smiles our dogs bring every day. In a world that can sometimes be tough to navigate I think we can all use a little more of that.”

Located on the east bank of the Fox River in historic De Pere, Wisconsin, the Unified School District of De Pere's attendance boundaries incorporate the City of De Pere east of the Fox River and parts of six suburban and rural towns. The district’s 4,300 students are educated at Altmayer, Heritage and Dickinson elementary schools; Foxview Intermediate School; De Pere Middle School and De Pere High School. Visit their website for more information.


This item appears thanks to Pamela Pirman, Communications Director, Unified School District of De Pere.