Each morning when my son gets off the bus heading to class, he is greeted by a 2-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback named Cali.
Cali is the first cortisol-detection dog working full time on staff at The Calais School, which serves K-12 students with special needs in Whippany, New Jersey.
My son and many of the students at The Calais School are on the autism spectrum. Some have attention deficit disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, or other challenges that can trigger anxiety and other complex emotions. The students are high functioning and look forward to their interactions with Cali, who gets her name from the school.
As they pass by Cali and say hello to the other staff members waiting at the entrance, the students know not to pet or distract the dog while she’s working. Her job is to detect rising cortisol levels in the students and keep them calm.
Cortisol is the stress hormone that our adrenal glands secrete when we become anxious or upset.
Cali the canine is trained to detect stress levels among her autistic charges.
When Cali sniffs out rising levels of cortisol, she signals her handler, Casey Butler, a health teacher who is a certified specialist in natural canine behavior rehabilitation and animal adaptive therapy.
Cali’s signals are so subtle the students and other teachers waiting nearby rarely notice. But Butler, 26, pays close attention to see if Cali points with her nose and stares at a child.
When Cali spots an anxious student, Butler asks the student whether he or she is feeling stressed. The typical response is, “’I’m OK,’” Butler told LifeZette. “Sometimes a student will open up.”
When the child doesn’t open up, Butler makes sure to observe that child.
“Cali is nonthreatening, and they (the kids) like being around her,” she said.
A ninth grader agreed.
“Cali can help us cope with our problems so that we don’t have to get through it by ourselves,” she said.
Cali’s detection is so keen that a student can be on a different floor or the opposite end of the building and alert Butler that a meltdown is about to occur.
“We can be in my office and she’ll nudge me with her nose and move toward the door,” Butler said. “She led me up one flight of stairs to the opposite end of the building, where we found a girl starting to have a meltdown. When the student noticed Cali, she calmed down.”
Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, told LifeZette, “It’s their uncanny sense of smell that allows dogs like Cali to detect rising cortisol levels in our sweat or breath, and to identify a student having trouble even in a faraway classroom.”
Dodman added, “Humans have 12 million smell receptors in their nose. At the lowest estimate, dogs have 800 million. Scent hounds like beagles and bassets have up to 4 billion. A dog’s ability to smell odors is beyond our comprehension. We are proud of ourselves when we drive past Burger King and can smell that they are cooking burgers. Dogs can smell a burger being cooked in the next town. That is why dogs are used to detect melanomas, diabetes and other types of disease. It’s all about the sense of smell.”
Cali was brought to the school just over a year ago from a local nonprofit, Merlin’s Kids.
“Some schools with a special-needs population have service dogs that visit and work with the students as a once-in-a-while activity,” David Leitner, executive director of The Calais School, told LifeZette. “We thought having a service dog on staff would benefit our students.”
At the end of the school day, the students board the buses back home — and Cali goes home with Butler.