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Fear kept her from school after a shooting. How a walking partner – with ‘no words required’ – helped her do the impossible

By Brammhi Balarajan, CNN

(CNN) — She couldn’t go back there. She just couldn’t.

Every time she left her house, the high schooler would scan for people reaching into backpacks. In public buildings, she’d calculate the nearest exit. She couldn’t even hear the rumbling of a plane – so similar to the helicopters and SWAT vehicles that rushed to quell the bloodshed that fall day in 2021 – without bursting into tears.

Alexis Hobson had been an eager freshman just beginning to create her high school memories when a fellow student unleashed a torrent of bullets that killed four classmates, wounded six more and a teacher – and made Oxford High School yet another victim of America’s seemingly endless school shooting scourge.

The same campus near Detroit that had held such hope for Alexis suddenly was weighed down by tragedy, she told CNN. For a while, classes were cancelled. But unlike other schools that had been shuttered or torn down after gun massacres, this one would reopen just weeks after the nightmare.

And Alexis, despite the hypervigilance she’d developed, wanted badly to return.

“I’ve always loved school,” she said. “I love learning. I love being in the school environment.”

Extra police, of course, would be on hand to guard the Oakland County students, many still in the throes of trauma. Another kind of support team would be there, too: a pack of furry, four-legged counselors charged with helping the kids face “that emotional thing that’s going on inside of them that maybe they can’t verbalize,” explained the sheriff who a few years earlier had begun integrating comfort dogs into his force.

Day in and day out after Oxford High reopened, Alexis tried to go back. But every time she thought she’d worked up the nerve – even with the extra police and the scampering pups – her fight-or-flight instinct kicked in.

“I’d get in the building and everything in me would tell me I needed to run,” she told CNN.

Over two weeks, Alexis only made it through two full days.

“And there were other days where I woke up, and I was convinced that if I went in the building, I would die.”

The teenager knew she needed to switch to online school.

At least for a while.

Training a force of emotional guards

Sheriff Michael Bouchard had started building a comfort dog program shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in Michigan, at a time when anxiety and mental health were becoming bigger concerns.

When people think of police dogs, large German shepherds there to sniff out drugs often come to mind. But for this K-9 program, Bouchard wanted to find approachable dogs with a comforting presence, he recalled.

To pick a breed, the sheriff talked with a professor who conducted research comparing breeds to see which would be the best fit. Silky, wide-eyed cavalier spaniels came out on top, he told CNN: Their small size and endless enthusiasm make them almost like a “lifetime puppy.”

“They’re tiny, so we can actually put them on someone’s lap in a wheelchair or on a hospital bed,” Bouchard said. “For younger kids, (some dogs) look them right in the eye, and sometimes it’s a little scary. So, this is really a disarming size.”

The difference these comfort dogs make can be enormous: Deputy Danya Waskom watched one help a suicidal person go from immense distress to wanting to get help, she told CNN.

And the pack quickly became part of the Oakland County community, growing to 13 dogs, including one named in honor of the local high school.

When Bouchard walks down the street, he said, he’s often greeted with a flurry of: “Where’s Max?” “Is that Wildcat?” “Oh, there’s Oxford!”

And when Oxford High School reopened nearly two months after the shooting, comfort dogs were there to help reintegrate the students, step by step. On that first day back, one of them – Max – especially helped put the teenagers at ease.

“The kids just gravitated to him,” Bouchard said, “and you could see physically the dogs absorb the impact.”

After an hour with students, Bouchard saw Max lay down and almost pass out, the sheriff recalled. He’d never seen the dog so exhausted.

“That’s what they do,” he said. “They help people, and they take some of the fear.”

During her months of online school, Alexis also got to spend some time with comfort dogs, she said. She sent little notes with gift cards to their handlers. And she later gave a speech for the unveiling of a statue in a nearby city’s school dogs program.

Then, as her sophomore year dawned, Alexis decided she was ready to try in-person classes again.

This time, though, one part of her routine would be different.

Trying again, as the ‘girl with the dog’

This time, Alexis would hang out one-on-one each morning on Oxford High’s campus with Oxford, the aptly named member of Bouchard’s comfort dog pack who also of late had been struggling, crying in the office while his officer went about his morning duties.

Alexis began going on walks with the “most wiggly, excited little guy,” whose fur, like a canvas with little white painted spots, was just like the paintings she does at home.

Immediately, she saw herself making progress.

Oxford would start his mornings with a big stretch, then do a silly crawl across the floor before visiting the security guards – who always had treats – then the cafeteria to see their “regulars,” Alexis said. If someone didn’t pet Oxford, he’d sit right by them until they caved: “He’s so silly because he wants everybody’s attention.”

Alexis’ classmates would tell her petting Oxford was exactly what they’d needed that day, and she’d watch them laugh as he scooted around the floor or scampered over and looked up. It became a privilege for Alexis to see Oxford’s impact on so many of her peers, she said.

And with Oxford, Alexis didn’t need to explain away all the trauma she’d experienced, she said.

She could just be.

“What’s so special about therapy dogs is that there are no words required,” she said. “They just provide comfort.”

She also began to feel an obligation: “Once I started spending my mornings with Oxford, there was a responsibility on my end,” Alexis recalled. “I’ve committed to Oxford, and he’s going to be there waiting for me.”

And after her walks with Oxford, Alexis said, she always walked away smiling.

Piece by piece, the routine sparked a change in how the sophomore felt about her school, this place she’d not so long ago fled over very real – and then her own perceived – danger.

It was the peace she needed to return to in-person classes.

And reclaim her love of being at school.

“It wasn’t until I started spending time with Oxford that I spent my first full week in the building, which is really beautiful,” Alexis said.

“Most people thought I’d never go back; I thought I’d never go back,” she added. “And it wasn’t until I started spending time with him and that opportunity really was comforting to me.”

Now, Alexis’ classmates know her – back at school full-time in person – as the “girl with the dog.”

There still are hard days, of course. But Alexis can hear an ambulance or a plane without doing a double take, she said. She walks into school at ease, one foot in front of the other. She sits down in her classroom, and all thoughts of a shooting are far, far away from her mind.

As for what’s next, Alexis has her whole life ahead, she said. She recently realized going to art school is her dream. She scrapbooks and paints and makes little “bracelets for shoes” for sale at a store in town.

And she goes to school every morning, knowing Oxford will be there waiting for her, Alexis said – but also now knowing that even if he’s not, she has the strength to get through the day.

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