In the midst of the portraits of Stoneman Douglas High students, faculty and staff, one page of the school’s yearbook is dedicated to a beloved part of the Eagles community: the therapy dogs.
On Feb. 14, 2018, a gunman opened fire on the school grounds, killing seventeen students and staff and rocking the entire Parkland, Fl. community. When teachers and students returned to the bullet-ridden halls only two weeks after the event, a team of trained K-9s were assembled to help console and heal a mourning student body.
“I think they were critical to the healing of everyone— faculty and staff included. When you see a dog and pet a dog it just makes you happy,” Sarah Lerner, the teacher advisor for the Stoneman Douglas yearbook, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. She manages a group of 35 students who work on documenting student life and produce the “Aerie Yearbook.”
Since then, the pups have become integrated into the fabric of the Stoneman Douglas High School community. The therapy dogs can be found meandering through hallways between classes, greeting students at lunch outside the cafeteria and making pit stops during class. Some of the pups even made a surprise appearance at prom.
“They bring such joy to the students. I teach seniors English, and these big 18-year-old seniors just kind of turn into these little, mushy 5-year-olds when the dogs come into the room,” Lerner says, adding that she never minds the interruption. “Whatever having a dog as a pet would do for you in your home, that’s what it does here. It’s relaxing and comforting.”
On the school’s picture day, the only school owned dog, River, joined students and faculty to have his portrait taken for this year’s yearbook. That’s when Lerner and her student staff decided all of the dedicated pups deserved a photo op too.
On the school’s re-take and make-up picture day, Lerner set up shop in her room to take photos of the school’s furry best friends. While the bigger dogs sat in front of the marble blue backdrop, the smaller dogs were photographed perched on tables. “At one point, I had six or seven dogs in the room at the time. And honestly it was one of the greatest days in my life,” the English teacher recalled.
"Including the therapy/service dogs in the yearbook is the best decision we’ve made so far like this one dog had a bowtie and my heart,” tweeted one Aerie staff member.
As the Aerie staff passed out the 2018- 2019 yearbook, students were ecstatic to find two rows of the school’s furry friends, smiling with their tongues out. Each dog had their first and last names listed, just like students and faculty. “They thought it was the cutest thing,” says Lerner. “They’ve even had some of the dogs sign their yearbooks.”
While rising editor-in-chief Caitlyn Tibbetts agrees that the therapy dogs have been a “mood lifter” for the school, she believes they also represent the resilience of the students and staff that continue to carry on.
The crew of therapy dogs have remained a calming and comforting presence for the community in the long aftermath of the shooting, from the one-year anniversary of the incident to the news of two Stoneman Douglas students taking their own life.
"Including them was a really good representation of our school and what we have gone through,” Tibbetts told BuzzFeed. “Seeing them is something we look forward to every day. These dogs are going to be there until the last of us are gone."
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