The Dogtor is In

Therapy dog Gracie relieves students’ stress through cuddles



Social worker Kristine Hummel with the dogtor, Gracie

A dog’s upturned nose sniffs the air as eyes draw to her brilliant white coat. The English cream therapy dog, named Gracie, makes rounds before advisery. At every corner, her presence brightens each student’s day.

Gracie has become a staple around the school. She has visited important events, including prom, football games, tennis tournaments, and staff birthdays. 

The pup was adopted in late 2019 by social worker Kristine Hummel. As a therapy dog, she has been trained to provide universal support for all people. 

I was having a pretty stressful morning, and coming into advisery and seeing Gracie, it was just an instant uplift.”

— Maddy Braddy

Hummel decided to have Gracie become a therapy dog at school because she was excited by the benefits Gracie would bring to Hummel’s students. 

While New Trier has had therapy dogs come during finals week the past few years, there was never a permanent therapy dog that worked with students consistently. Other schools in the area, such as Loyola of Deerfield, have therapy dogs open to student use.

In 2019, Hummel took a year-long course through the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, entitled “Animal and Human Health Certificate,” in anticipation of Gracie. The course educated Hummel on how to effectively allow interaction between therapy dogs and the patients and understand how environments and welfare factor into therapy dogs’ work.

After getting Gracie, she needed to begin basic training on acting in different spaces,an ongoing endeavor according to Hummel. 

“We go to Home Depot, we expose her to different dogs, different experiences.”

To get Gracie “approved,” she had to pass a test administered by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. The test consists of the dog being brought through three different environments to see how they reacted.

Fortunately, Gracie passed.

The next step was getting Gracie approved to come into the school. She had to submit a proposal to Principal Denise Dubravec, Superintendent Paul Sally, and Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Timothy Hayes. 

Hummel also had to learn about other schools’ therapy dog programs and to get an idea of  what would work for New Trier. 

In the end, Hummel and Hayes agreed that the best fit for Gracie would be to use her for targeted intervention, which would be one-on-one or small group work or universal support.

Once Gracie and Hummel were cleared to enter New Trier, they began to get Gracie used to the environment. On Saturdays, Hummel and Gracie would roam the halls of the schools, getting Gracie accustomed to the stairs, doors, and smells of the school and different alarms.

Another big part of training for therapy dogs is the connection they must build with their owners. 

“I can read her. I know when she is stressed… some of the work in training is the two of us in our partnership together,” said Hummel. 

Having Gracie in the room comforts the student, creating a safe environment.

Hummel recounted a time when a student requested Gracie to be with her at their next meeting, and in the next meeting the student “came back, and she disclosed something that was really really personal, and really hard,” said Hummel.  

Susan Antonini, another social worker, additionally noted Gracie’s calming presence at the school. 

“Kids’ shoulders drop, we can hear their signs of relief when they come in and see Gracie,” said Antonini.

Gracie also visited adviseries, making connections with students. 

One of those adviseries was of special ed teacher, Sarah Fergus. Gracie was able to calm the advisees of special ed teacher Sarah Fergus, such as sophomore Maddy Braddy.

“I was having a pretty stressful morning, and coming into advisery and seeing Gracie, it was just an instant uplift,” said Braddy.

Since Sept. 2020, Gracie has had an Instagram account where Hummel posts new pictures to share happiness with fun pictures of animals. Her handle is @gracienths. 

“I like putting something out there for people to enjoy, to be able to see what Gracie is doing outside of New Trier,” said Hummel.

 This month, there will be the Adolescent Health Summit, in which typically three speakers present. One of those speakers will be Hummel talking about therapy dogs and animal-assisted intervention.