This is a guest post from Kate Baker, a high school English teacher at Southern Regional in Manahawkin, NJ. In honor of National Pet Day, we asked her to share how one cuddly canine has redefined “creature comfort” for her classroom and school.
Brody and I met when he was five weeks old, after the breeder drove him from Indiana to our house in New Jersey. I’ll never forget gazing into those sad puppy dog eyes for the first time, which you can see he still has 10 years later. But don’t be fooled; Brody has a very good life and is so much more than my family pet and my school’s unofficial mascot. He’s a founding member of the Pets Assisting Willing Students (PAWS) therapy dog program at Southern Regional High School.
Brody was originally meant to be just a family pet, but I quickly learned about the healing power of animals when tragedy struck at the high school where I teach 9th grade English. Ten years ago, a number of staff and students died in accidents, and one of my former students committed suicide. In a note she left on my desk, she said goodbye and taught me a very important life lesson: I can’t solve everything and when something bad happens, I must turn it into a positive. Brody arrived two weeks after my student died, and caring for and training him helped bring me out of my depression. While I was unable to do anything to prevent her suicide or bring her back to life, Brody and his obedience trainer showed me how therapeutic dogs can be in times of need.
A therapy dog is a dog trained to provide affection and comfort to people with learning difficulties and those in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, and stressful situations (e.g. disaster areas). The most important characteristic of a therapy dog is its temperament. A good therapy dog must be friendly, patient, confident, gentle, and at ease in all situations. Therapy dogs must also enjoy human contact and be content with petting and handling, because their primary job is to allow unfamiliar people to make physical contact and enjoy it.
Brody’s trainer is also a teacher, so when I learned that her pets were certified therapy dogs that she brought to her special education classroom, I made it my mission to get Brody certified. The morale at school was bleak and my hope was that Brody could help avoid more suicides and comfort those in need when a tragedy does occur.
After completing the training and passing the Pet Therapy Certification Test (I held the pencil and Brody barked his answers—just kidding!), I worked with another teacher at Southern Regional who also had gotten her golden retriever certified, and we submitted a proposal to the administration and Board of Education to bring the dogs into our classroom. Once we received approval, we started slowly bringing the dogs in for one hour a day, one day a week, and then gradually worked up to a full-time, five days a week schedule. We let the students interact with the dogs during class and hosted after-school reading sessions for struggling students. For the past eight years, Brody has attended my English classes every school day.
Southern Regional High School is Brody’s second home. Walk by my classroom and you may see him sitting at the feet of a student, snuggled next to someone reading, or asleep on his bed while I teach. With Brody in my classroom, I have ZERO truancy. There is ZERO tardiness.
Behavioral issues have also decreased, and I’ve witnessed the school’s surliest, meanest looking student break into a big, goofy grin and get on the floor to pet Brody. I’ve watched regular education students stop to talk to a special education student walking Brody down the hall on a leash. Students who’ve had a bad day seek him out for comfort, and I often find notes written by students to Brody in his vest pocket.
Brody and I also spend part of my lunch period with the students in our Autism program. As part of his behavior modification plan, one student would walk Brody around the school visiting various offices and engaging in conversation with the professional assistants. When we first started walking with Brandon, he wouldn’t look at me or acknowledge my presence, but after three years of walking with Brody, he and I can engage in conversation and he acknowledges me regularly.
Brody is so well-known that he even headlined our district’s production of Annie, playing the part of Sandy. It’s amazing to see the transformation that occurs when Brody interacts with someone. A therapy dog is a bridge that connects us to ourselves and each other.
1. Make sure the animal has the right temperament for interacting with students and has received the appropriate certifications.
2. Speak to your building administrators and draft up a proposal for approval by your board of education.
3. With the support of your administration and approval by the board, distribute permission slips to anyone who will come in contact with the animal and accommodate those who are allergic or fearful of animals.
4. After securing approval from all parties, slowly acclimate your pet to its new environment.
Brody is turning 10 years old this month, and even though he’s starting to show his age, working at Southern has kept him young. He loves interacting with the staff and students and can tell you exactly which drawers in which offices have biscuits. When I ask, “Ready to go to school?” in the mornings, he immediately heads for the door. His portrait is painted on a hallway wall, and everyone reaches out to pet him as we walk through the halls in between class periods. A therapy animal helps bridge the gap between people by providing an opportunity for interaction, and Brody has brought many people together at Southern.
Do you have a pet in your classroom? Share its story, and its impact on your students and school, in the comments section below, or in the Edmodo Communities.