Meet the Therapy Dog Named After St. Patrick

Furry morale booster roams the halls of a Chicago Catholic high school.

Pat the therapy dog enjoys the attention of his school buddies.
Pat the therapy dog enjoys the attention of his school buddies. (photo: Courtesy of Meredith Santucci/St. Patrick High School)

Every Wednesday, as students stream into St. Patrick High School in Chicago, a staff member greets them inside the front doors. The staff badge hanging down from his unshaved neck includes a headshot and, in bold letters, “Pat.” He wears a green St. Pat polo shirt. His hair is a “bit scruffy on the top of his head — like some of our students,” says another staffer, Meredith Santucci, the school’s director of special events and marketing coordinator.

But Pat is 3 years old, weighs 35 pounds, stands 12 inches tall and wags his tail when greeting friends — which includes, practically speaking, nearly all the 501 students at the school as well as staff. A goldendoodle, a mix of a golden retriever and a poodle, the white-haired Pat is a therapy dog.

Student after student pets Pat, who likes to roll over and get petted on the tummy. “Hey, Pat, how you doing?” says a burly senior, a football player. Another senior, Tom Lawler, who hopes to attend West Point, is especially fond of Pat. “It’s just great to see him. He lifts the spirits of everyone. He is our morale dog.”

Since 2022, Pat has been a fixture at St. Patrick, which opened in 1861 and is the city’s oldest all-male Catholic high school. He trots into classrooms, shares lunch tables with students (“They feed him fries — chicken, please,” says Melisa Moroko, his handler/owner and a school parent), chases tennis balls thrown by students in the courtyard, jumps into the pool with the swimming and water polo teams, and attends football and basketball games. 

Pat is one of the guys — and one of God’s beloved creatures. 

Pat the Therapy Dog portrait
Pat likes to roam the halls.(Photo: Courtesy of Meredith Santucci/St. Patrick High School)

His lair is the library, where his green mat is. Students go there to do research, study and give Pat a pet or two. But Pat, truly Pavlovian, rarely sits still; he knows when students are due. “When the class bell rings, he runs to the library door,” says Moroko.

“He doesn’t care if you are captain of the football team or on the chess team. He shows love to everyone,” says Moroko. “At the end of the day, it’s about unconditional love. He embodies the family atmosphere we embrace at St. Pat’s.”

St. Patrick High School therapy dog
Pat comes to school on Wednesdays.(Photo: Courtesy of Meredith Santucci/St. Patrick High School)

Located on the Northwest Side, still partly a haven for Irish and Polish, St. Patrick for years has welcomed a very diverse student body. Weekly Mass is held before school on Wednesday, a late-start day. Prominent in the school lobby are large wall photos of Pope Francis, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich and a leader of the Christian Brothers, who run the school. A plaque near the photos reads: “Love to Learn is Good. Learn to Love is God.” Crucifixes and statues of saints rest in hallways and rooms.

Such visible objects are common in Catholic schools. Pat’s role is a response to mostly invisible strains and challenges faced by students today at Catholic and non-Catholic schools alike.

“There is so much pressure today to be accepted,” says Moroko, past president of the school’s women’s club. “How many friends do you have [on social media]? How often are you ‘tagged’ or ‘liked?’ Pat does not care what kind of headphones you have or the shoes you wear.”

Moroko adopted Pat from a Facebook rescue group. She regularly volunteered at a community garden run by a St. Patrick alumnus at the rugged Cook County Jail in Chicago. “One day, I put Pat in the truck, and he came along. I saw the faces of the inmates and saw the effect he had on them,” she says. “Why not try him out in my son’s school?” she thought.

She trained Pat as a therapy dog according to principles formulated by the American Kennel Club. So Pat is a certified professional, so to speak, but one who breaks the rules. “Oh, he wouldn’t pass today. He likes to jump up on people,” Moroko says.

But he is generally good at staying still when he is in a classroom during prayer, and he somehow senses when a student, staffer or even a parent needs extra attention. Not long ago, he immediately went to a mom and nestled against her for several minutes. “She asked me, ‘How did Pat know? I was having one of the worst weeks of my life,’” recalled Moroko.

Therapy dogs have become a passion in the Moroko family. Mary, her daughter, takes Katie, a second rescue dog, weekly to her Catholic high school. Pat himself is not exclusive to St. Patrick. He periodically visits and charms students at other Catholic schools.

Patrick St. Patrick therapy dog
Students greet their furry friend.(Photo: Courtesy of Meredith Santucci/St. Patrick High School)

A four-footed celebrity, Pat has his own Instagram page with 1,045 followers. The school is making 100 or more “Pat Heads” — Pat’s photo on a stick — to promote the school and reading. On St. Patrick’s Day he is marching with students in the big holiday parade through the streets of the North Side.

School staff members lean on Pat, too. “He crashes staff meetings. He’ll wander into a principal/teacher meeting,” says Moroko.

On March 13, in the library, Karyn Burkholder, a biology teacher on break from class, uninhibitedly snuggled with Pat. “I’ll give you the biology perspective about Pat,” she says. “He connects us to nature. He ties us to the natural world. He shows the beauty of life on earth.”

This week, Pat was scheduled to meet up with an old friend, a 2023 graduate who was nearly killed and partially paralyzed by a stray bullet. Nate Otero was set to attend St. Mary’s University of Minnesota on a basketball scholarship when he was shot in the face in June at a graduation party in a distant suburb. Pat was a favorite of Otero, who faces a difficult recovery.

Pat is kind of a wonder dog. “I was very skeptical about it at first,” says Brother David Galinski, who has taught and worked at the school for 53 years. “High-school boys have enough distractions. Boy, was I wrong."

“Everyone’s face lights up with Pat. ‘Therapy dog’ is a bit of a misnomer. Better to name him a ‘Joy-Giver.’”

Pat the therapy dog hallway
Pat, aka ‘Joy-Giver’(Photo: Courtesy of Meredith Santucci/St. Patrick High School)
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