Three days a week at St. Mary Parish School in Newton, Catholic Charities therapist Leigh Ann O’Halloran and her 10-year-old Border collie, Strider, bring counseling services to school students and their families as a team.
Both are professionals in their fields. O’Halloran is a licensed specialist clinical social worker, and Strider is a licensed professional therapy dog. Both have the same goal for their work — to ensure clients and their families are happy and healthy.
“It’s just a blessing to have a counselor at the school available to you,” said Philip Stutey, principal at the school. “... Having a therapy dog like that relates to the kids very well.”
O’Halloran’s focus is filial therapy, a form of play therapy which includes parent involvement. O’Halloran said Strider is helpful for her in therapy for many reasons, and she learns how to be a better therapist by watching the dog.
It also helps she and Strider are so much alike. The two were matched in 2002 based on their personalities and work ethics.
“She lives to work and play, and to take care of me,” O’Halloran said. “She barks when my kids are too noisy at home, almost as if she’s a nanny telling them to quiet down.”
In addition, Strider is aware of behavior changes in both the clients she sees, (which are not limited to St. Mary school children but come from around the community, as well), and in her master. O’Halloran said Strider knows when she is not feeling well.
“One time she alerted (me) when I was about to pass out and amazed everyone around who witnessed her calm attention,” O’Halloran said.
Stutey said O’Halloran and Strider enjoy interacting with children and families and getting to know them better. During therapy sessions, Strider is known to change places in the therapy circle to come closer to a nervous student who is tensing, lay beside the child and act as a comforting presence.   
“Adults and kids alike respond to her, and she often greets clients at the door,” O’Halloran said. “Strider is one friend you can talk to who will never, ever tell a secret, and some of my clients use her as a confidant.”
The Border collie was in three foster puppy homes before coming to live with O’Halloran, and that concept is something some of her clients understand.
“I tell them she understands moving around and the uncertainty of when the suitcases come out and the bed is going to move,” O’Halloran said. “My foster care clients really cling to her.”
It’s not all work, all the time for Strider, however. O’Halloran said she also is used as an incentive and reward for positive reinforcement for her child clients. When a student meets a goal, he or she earns 10 minutes of playtime with the collie.
“It’s mutually beneficial,” O’Halloran said. “Strider’s favorite thing on this planet is a neon green tennis ball.”
Even with occasional down time, Strider’s strict work ethic returns soon enough, and O’Halloran respects the dog’s no-nonsense attitude.  She said Strider is a dedicated worker and doesn’t complain.
“When she sees me pick up my briefcase or laptop computer, her ears perk up, and she prances by the door, and I tell her, ‘Come on, sweet girl. Let’s go to work,’” O’Halloran said.