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Cool Schools: Dog provides emotional support at Westgate Community School

Westgate Community School's facility dog, named Pete, is there for students to feel supported in times of distress.

THORNTON, Colo. — Westgate Community School is helping its students feel safe with a lending paw from a four-legged friend. The K-12 school in the Adams 12 school district added a facility dog named Pete to their school counseling team to help provide general support for all their students and respond to calls to give comfort to students in distress. Pete completed Certified Handler Training with Canine Partners of the Rockies with his handler Autumn Washington, who counsels 7th through 12th grade students at the school.

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“Having Pete here full time every single day from 7:30am to 4pm makes a world of difference just for the mood of the school itself,” Washington said. “Classrooms who might be struggling with peer-to-peer situations and issues or academic concerns, he just shifts everything.”

Credit: Byron Reed
Westgate Community School counselor Autumn Washington (left) and her partner Pete.

The two have been helping students at Westgate for the past five years, and Washington said her partner was trained to help with students' mental health. Along with the school’s peer mentoring program, the addition of Pete was part of the school's commitment to Whole Child Education.

“It’s about the whole child and really as a school organization, more about the whole human,” said Executive Director Sharon Collins. “When you talk about a whole human being, you can’t learn and grow without thinking about all aspects of who you are as a person and mental wellness is at the core of who we are.”

Credit: Byron Reed
Westgate Community School Executive Director Sharon Collins said, There’s something about animals that allow kids to drop some of their walls, its calming, he matches their breathing, he knows without knowing."

The school of about 550 students has been providing Whole Child Education for over 12 years. Collins said their dedication to mental health is not a buzzword, and they’re committed to attending to each student’s mind-body well-being.

“(We) make it a priority and prioritize the time,” Collins said. “You can’t say, ‘We’re going to do social and emotional learning’ or fit it in where you can. You have to say, ‘It’s first’.”

Credit: Byron Reed
Westgate Community School

Autumn and her partner were part of the counseling team that helped 6th grader Lilly Roe. She said Pete helped her get through a tough time.

“They’ve always been there for me, especially Pete,” Roe said. “I’ve gone through a lot of friend troubles, so they’ve really helped me through stuff and really help me learn how to deal with friendship troubles.”

It’s a mission that’s been in the forefront for Washington the past two years. She said a lot of students are still struggling to be with friends after being away from each other for so long during the pandemic.

Credit: Byron Reed
Westgate Community School

“I would say the biggest concerns right now kind of come from the after-effects of being in quarantine with COVID,” Washington said. “Just a lot of worry around family stability, their own stability inside and just trying to figure out how they feel.”

The school also has goats, chickens and bees as part of its six-acre outdoor education campus. It’s a program that Collins hopes is as popular as their best friend named Pete.

Credit: Byron Reed
Westgate Community School

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“It’s different than any school I’ve been in,” Collins said. “It is the focus on you as a human being and what’s important and unique and wonderful about you, and we accept and value that.”

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