Students learn to ‘paws’ and reflect
Big things can come in small packages. But they also can come in the form of four-legged furry ones, especially if you attend an elementary school in the Bettendorf Community School District. There, dedicated therapy dogs work side by side with students every day. Akin, Egypt, Pacific, Paxton and Tinker are in daily service to help students succeed in the classroom and, together, they make big things happen.
Now in its tenth year, the Bettendorf Therapy Dog Program was started by one school counselor and her dog, Nip, both now retired. The district acquires the dogs from the Canine Assistance Rehabilitation Education & Services (C.A.R.E.S.) organization in Concordia, Kansas. The dogs are certified as assistive, professional therapy dogs, which means they receive the highest level of training. School staff who work with the dogs must spend a week in Kansas being trained, and get retrained every two years.
The Bettendorf program currently consists of dog owners who are primary handlers, and other trained staff ranging from librarians to secretaries, counselors, and teachers who are secondary handlers interested in participating and sharing responsibility for daily routines. All elementary school counselors are trained dog handlers. And then there are the individual canines.
Meet Akin, who understands self-control, getting in trouble, and friendship
“Akin is the students’ connection to school,” said Danielle Breier, counselor and secondary dog handler at Neil Armstrong Elementary School. “He is stability, something they rely on seeing every day. Regardless of how their day is going, he is a positive connection. Walking Akin down the hall, he is a celebrity. Their faces light up, they are excited to see him. Everybody knows him.”
To help channel student exuberance when passing Akin in the hall, students utilize the “wag wave” by wiggling their pinky fingers, mimicking the friendly wave of a dog’s tail.
“I use Akin a ton to help teach school building expectations,” Breier said. “We are a Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) school, so I use Akin to teach active listening. I show the students how Akin is listening to me.
I can put a ball or food in front of him and demonstrate his self-control and active listening. When students are on task and doing the right thing, I will tap them and they get a chance to pet Akin. It’s a huge help with PBIS.”
Akin is in his third year as resident therapy dog at Neil Armstrong Elementary. His week is split between Breier in the counseling arena, Erica Ellerbach, the secretary in the main office, and time with owner, primary handler and fourth grade teacher Jodi Hanson.
“I relate Akin to the kids, too,” said Hanson, who also is the director of the program. “When he wears his therapy dog vest, he must be disciplined and in control. I emphasize that like students, Akin must be so controlled at school.
But when he goes home he plays in the yard, goes a little crazy and sometimes makes mistakes. When the vest comes off, he sometimes gets in trouble, like when he ate an entire bag of treats. I was able to show the students that Aiken sometimes has a tough time too.
“Once while I was teaching he was itching his work vest and it was really loud and distracting to all of us. So I temporarily removed his vest and the kids about lost it! They said, ‘He’s a regular dog!’ So we talked about how the vest is his signal that he’s working, just like students know different signals that it’s time for them to work.”
Akin also helps build a connection and strengthen the friendship between Brier
and Hanson, who are basically co-parenting the dog at school. They must
communicate and share responsibilities regarding Akin's day.
Akin also helps build a connection and strengthen the friendship between Breier and Hanson, who are basically co-parenting the dog at school. They must communicate and share responsibilities regarding Aiken’s day.
Meet Tinker, who understands the value of a whisper and being a good listener
Shannon Harmon, a counselor at Mark Twain Elementary, owner and primary handler of Tinker, says the therapy dog is beneficial to every aspect of her work. She can’t imagine doing her job without Tinker’s help.
“It definitely helps students emotionally,” Harmon said. “Students who have had something traumatic happen in their life may not be ready to talk to me or anyone else, but they will open up to Tinker. She’s a great listener.
“I had a student who didn’t want to talk to adults but wanted to talk to Tinker. So I just sat and I worked, and the student was kind of whispering to her and not holding it in, having that outlet, that support.”
Counseling lessons about self-control, being kind or transitions in families or school are especially suited for Tinker’s involvement. Students respond favorably when they hear that Tinker’s been through things, too.
For students going through changing families, be it foster care, divorce, or someone moving away, Tinker is an integral part of the lesson. Harmon talks with students about how Tinker had five other siblings and a mom and dad, how she misses them and how she copes with it. Tinker helps normalize the students’ experiences, lets them know they are not alone with their feelings, and reminds the students that while some people are not directly in their lives there are others who love and care about them.
Some students utilize a check-in, check-out program, checking in with a counselor or other adult first thing in the morning to discuss how the day will go, or to process something that happened at home the night before. Students spend a few minutes with a therapy dog, wish the dog well, give a hug, and begin the school day on a positive note. As a reward for appropriate student behavior, students can also earn time with Tinker to walk her, throw a ball, or pet her.
Stacia Moyes, third grade teacher and secondary handler, raves about the therapeutic, practical, and academic benefits to students.
“The program is awesome,” Moyes said. “The students work towards incentives to get time with Tinker, to read to her, visit Mrs. Harmon and Tinker, or have Tinker come to our classroom. When students are upset or need calming down time, they will ask to talk to or pet Tinker. The interaction helps them get back to class and be ready to learn.
“Therapy dogs offer the chance for kids to process through things they would otherwise keep inside. They can be having the worst day, or be in a place where they are struggling, and they see Tinker in the hallway and it just makes them smile. They share their successes and their struggles. It’s very beneficial.”
Meet Pacific, who understands inclusion and great timing…in music and behavior
Pacific could well write a symphony for all he’s seen and heard having free range privileges in the K-5 music class at Paul Norton Elementary School. He maneuvers about the room with the ease and subtle nuance of an experienced maestro, knowing just when to crescendo and just when to rest.
“Pacific is a major success in my classroom,” said music teacher and secondary dog handler Emily Boblett. “He makes the students feel welcomed and excited to be here. When they see him at the door, their faces just light up, they are so happy to have him here.
“He is also a huge success as an incentive for students with behavior plans, to earn Pacific time as a reward. They earn time during their day to sit with him, pet him, hug him, brush him. It’s a wonderful, calm, quiet reward.”
Sometimes, Pacific can help intervene when a student is in crisis. While keeping Pacific and the student safe are paramount, the therapy dog can be very helpful to deescalating the student.
Jocelyn Kyte, former second grade teacher now instructional coach, is Pacific’s owner and primary handler, and agrees whole heartedly.
“Pacific just automatically knows what kids need him at different times in the day and he just goes and sits next to them,” Kyte said. “Some students are afraid to read aloud, or don’t have confidence in their abilities. Just having Pacific there to read to or next to them when they are taking an assessment, suddenly they feel more relaxed and comfortable, their confidence goes through the roof.
“We have a student who has selective mutism and was very shy around adults and didn’t like to talk. So we used Pacific as a conduit. The student became comfortable talking to the dog and then began engaging in conversation with adults and other students. Now, he is comfortable with his peer group, with adults, and is very talkative and animated.”
Students are not the only beneficiaries of Pacific’s special abilities. Adults are equally receptive and affected by the therapy dog’s impact on their day. The benefits extend to the entire education community.
“Pacific brings happiness to everyone,” Boblett said. “You see all the smiles when we walk through the hallway. When I stop in the office, the faces of our secretary and nurse light up. We forget sometimes that adults need it, too.”
“The therapy dog program impacts everybody who comes in contact with the dogs, from the students, to the adults, to the families within our school system,” Kyte said.
Meet Egypt, who understands who needs him most and the benefits of sharing a good book
Picture this: Early afternoon in Heather McCoy’s second grade classroom at Grant Wood Elementary. Soft, relaxing music plays in the background. The atmosphere is simultaneously buzzing with energy and intensely focused. McCoy circulates around the room responding to questions, while some students read-to-self and others read aloud. Seemingly dichotomous interactions are succeeding, in part because some students are reading intently while stretched out on the floor beside Egypt the therapy dog.
“It’s important for me to have Egypt in my classroom right after lunch during read-to-self time, and also at the start of the day,” said McCoy, Egypt’s owner and primary handler.
“The kids are excited to come to school because they get to greet her first thing in the morning,” she said. “We had a new student with some nonphysical disabilities. Egypt knew the student was going to struggle and so she would go sit right next to him at the start of every day. The student would pet Egypt and be fine the rest of the day. She just sensed, ‘he needs me.’
“I had another student who cried every day in first grade, but when she started second grade never cried once. She always greeted Egypt in the morning and then we had no issues. It’s just very reassuring.”
Sydney Kane, Title reading teacher, works closely with McCoy and Egypt.
“Egypt is very good at sensing when a student is having a distressed moment,” Kane said. “She just senses it through sound, smell, voice, through anything she can feel by whatever vibe or energy the students give out. She will get up, walk over and sit by them. I won’t even say anything. She calms the student right down, and they can do their work with her.”
Students participating in the check-in, check-out program must earn a 100 percent for the day for the privilege of giving Egypt a pat at the end of the day. Working that hard to interact with Egypt is worth it.
“Egypt is for everyone, including the adults,” Kane said. “We have long days, early mornings, and meetings. She just trots in and is excited to see everyone and loves interacting with all of us. As long as Mrs. McCoy is here I want to be a secondary dog handler.”
Dogs in school? The elephant in the room and the future
“At first I was skeptical,” said Emily Boblett, K-5 music teacher and secondary dog handler at Paul Norton Elementary. “I wondered about all the obvious questions. How will this work in the classroom? What about people with allergies? Is this a pet? What if someone is afraid? What about safety?”
The program puts the safety and comfort of the students first and foremost. Students know they can choose to have the dog next to them or not. The therapy dog is in place to support positive interaction and productive learning. Where the dog is free to move about the room, students share responsibility for interacting appropriately. If it becomes a distraction, the students know the therapy dog will have to go lay down.
For students with allergies, arrangements are made for the student to wash their hands after petting the dog. In severe cases, the dog is removed from class which gives the dog an opportunity for a break. One teacher with an allergy had the dog visit her classroom less often.
For those interested or considering adopting a therapy dog program, the staff encourages on-site visits to schools who have implemented it. They advise schools to identify worries or concerns so that each one can be addressed, to seek guidance from others, be well informed, and acquire dogs from reputable organizations that have worked with therapy dogs in schools.
“I would like other districts to know what a positive difference having a therapy dog makes in our school,” Boblett said. “I can’t stress enough just the joy of reaching as many students as possible. We are so lucky as a district that we have the support from our administration and from our teachers to make that happen.”
Boblett’s viewpoint is not unique. Her colleagues unanimously agree that the positive academic, social, emotional, and behavioral benefits of the program far outweigh any obstacles to overcome. For the Bettendorf program, the future is embraced. Plans are under way to put a another dog in place. Staff continue to look for ways to integrate the therapy dogs into the curriculum and create more incentives for student success.
These therapy dogs manage to do all this without ever uttering a spoken word. Big things do indeed come in four-legged, furry packages.
Adelia, fourth grade student, Mrs. Hanson’s class, Neil Armstrong Elementary School:
“My favorite thing to do with Akin is read-to-self or read out loud. I like Akin because he is nice and helps me feel relaxed and helps me listen. I like earning points to feed him, walk him to specials and take him to recess.”
Lilly, second grade student, Mrs. McCoy’s class, Grant Wood Elementary School:
“I like having Egypt in our classroom because she is really nice and she never gets upset when she is really mad. She never bites people and she always just gives you kisses on the hand. She is trained not to lick in the face.
“The person of the day is a different person every day. They get to fill up her water bowl or brush her. You have to do really well to earn (good behavior) points and you get to use your points to spend time with Egypt, too.
“I love having her in the classroom because I get to pet her and read to her and do a lot of stuff with her and I love that because she is so sweet and the nicest dog. She helps you calm down if you are really upset.”
In Mrs. Hanson’s fourth grade class, during the morning meeting, the question of the day was, “What do you love most about having Akin in the class?” Student responses:
- Listens well
- Doesn’t bite
- He’s a dog, what’s not to love?
- Loves carrots
- Helps me concentrate
- Can’t have a dog at home so I have one in school
- He is fun
- Helps me relax
- Love reading to him
- Helps us listen
- Shows positive behavior
- Like taking care of him
- He knows commands