Lessons in Love: Support dogs encourage learning, stability inside and outside the classroom
By: Carol Enright
Sylvia Bronner teaches the first grade at Highcroft Ridge Elementary School in the Parkway School District. On many days, a number of second-graders stop by Mrs. Bronner’s classroom before the morning bell rings to say hello – not necessarily to Mrs. Bronner, but to her canine companion. Calvin is a 10-year-old black lab, an assisted therapy dog trained by Support Dogs, Inc., and he has a loyal following at Highcroft Ridge.
When asked if she visited Calvin every day before school, one second-grader said, “No, only on the days that he’s here.” That would be Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Many know Support Dogs, Inc. for the dogs it trains to help people with physical disabilities. However, support dogs also are praised for their uncanny ability to calm and motivate children with special needs or those considered high risk. But Bronner’s is a typical, mainstream classroom of first-graders.
You might be wondering: What can a dog bring to this environment?
A popular classmate
In Bronner’s classroom, students read to Calvin, they make things for Calvin’s box – which on one day contained a student-made paper collar and a picture of a child walking Calvin. But, most of all, it’s about what Calvin gives to the kids.
Calvin seems to bring a positive and calming presence to the classroom.
“It’s just really important to me that kids feel safe at school and know that school is their place to be,” Bronner explained. “And they can’t wait to get here every day. It’s their room, their environment – and the dog makes one more piece of a kiddo feel good about school.”
It’s clear to anyone visiting Bronner’s classroom that her students love having Calvin as a “classmate.”
“Calvin’s a great dog for our classroom, because everybody loves him and it’s so much fun,” said first-grader Jake.
Jake’s classmate, Isaiah, was quick to point out Calvin’s attributes.
“Calvin plays a lot and he wags his tail – and do you know the cutest thing about him?” Isaiah paused for effect. “His eyes.”
But Mrs. Bronner’s students also know that having Calvin in the classroom comes with a set of rules. Never feed Calvin. Never eat next to Calvin. Never lie on Calvin. Don’t pet Calvin during learning time. And, sometimes, Calvin just needs a little alone time.
“If he’s under the table, it means he can’t be petted,” said first-grader, Dakota.
This is Calvin’s first year at Highcroft Ridge. Prior to this year, Bronner brought Calvin with her to Carman Trails Elementary School, where he spent six years in a first-grade classroom. Last year, he hung out in the Carman Trails office while Bronner worked as an administrative intern.
Bronner said Calvin’s time in the office “was probably his best work, actually, because he really saw kids who needed help every single day.”
In the office, Calvin had daily contact with children sent there for disciplinary reasons or who were upset for a myriad of reasons. Bronner said Calvin’s role in the classroom is more of a beloved “staff member that’s just fun to see every day.”
“In this classroom, he’s fun to have,” said Bronner. “Kids write about him, they read to him, they hang out with him, they visit him. And kids from other classes, if they need a break, can come in and see him.”
Bronner said Calvin can comfort a child who has lost a pet or cheer up a child who’s just having a bad day. She recalled an example of one student who refused to get out of his car in the morning carpool line. As traffic backed up, Bronner took Calvin out to the car and asked the little boy if he would like to walk Calvin in.
“He got out of the car, grabbed the leash and walked him in,” Bronner said.
A four-legged counselor
Highcroft Ridge counselor Melissa Neverls used Calvin to help a student overcome her fear of dogs. Neverls said when this first-grader (not one of Bronner’s students) initially found out that Calvin was in the building, she wouldn’t go near him. But Neverls said having Calvin around helped the little girl “develop strategies to get over her fears and apprehensions.”
Neverls said because Calvin was so calm around this student, she eventually began to trust him “and then we got closer to him.”
“Because he’s so non-threatening – and he represents something that’s threatening – that’s a good, just gradual, tool to help her get over one of her fears,” Neverls said.
And Neverls said that she continues to use Calvin as an example to help the student deal with other fears, too, asking her: “What did we do to get closer to Calvin?”
Bill Dahlkamp, executive director of Support Dogs, Inc., agreed that introducing a support dog into the classroom is “a wonderful opportunity” to help children overcome their fear of dogs.
When a support dog is first brought into a classroom, Dahlkamp said there is an educational component in which the teacher and/or a Support Dogs representative talks to the children about “how these dogs are different and how they’ve been trained differently than just a normal, everyday pet dog.”
He said that “once they see their classmates interacting with the dog” and they spend time around the dog, students who were initially fearful realize that “they don’t have to be afraid.”
A non-judgmental motivator
Dahlkamp said dogs like Calvin can motivate kids.
“It’s results driven … The teacher uses the dog to get what they want,” said Dahlkamp. “But, also, it’s good therapy for the kids because they have a canine classmate in their classroom and it just helps the overall learning environment.
“It’s funny, because kids will do a lot for a dog, and maybe not so much for a person or an adult, because (the dog is) something that they can relate to.
“And then there’s the reward system when the dog is there. They can pet the dog. They can read to the dog. What we’ve found is some teachers will develop exercises around the dog so that kids can write about the dogs or incorporate them into other things besides reading.”
When it comes to reading, Dahlkamp said a dog can be particularly motivating to children who are behind their peers in reading or embarrassed to read in front of the class.
“It’s a non-judgmental entity that they can read to and they can work through. They can build their confidence,” Dahlkamp said, “because a dog doesn’t criticize and a dog doesn’t necessarily correct – and I mean correct in a bad way – but it makes them feel comfortable, makes them empowered, makes them feel that they can do things that they don’t have to necessarily do in front of the class.”
Dahlkamp said when a child reads to a dog, “they get to be the leader in that dynamic.”
“They feel honored. They feel special that they get to do something that’s out of the ordinary,” Dahlkamp said. “And even for the class, as a whole, what we’ve found is that the classrooms these dogs are in, the whole class feels special because they’re the only ones in the school that have a dog.”
A stable presence
Dogs like Calvin have also been effective in providing a sense of security and stability for at-risk children.
“We have a dog over in Illinois where every single one of the kids in the classroom comes from an at-risk background,” Dahlkamp said.
He explained that many of these students’ parents are incarcerated and the children are living in foster care.
“So their lives are very non-constant,” Dahlkamp said. “They can at least look forward to coming to school every day and that dog is going to be there.”
In 2009 and 2010, Support Dogs placed two court advocate dogs in Missouri to assist in cases in which children have been mentally, physically or sexually abused.
“The dogs were incorporated as part of their forensic interview process, and the kids actually tell their stories to the dog and it’s videotaped,” said Dahlkamp. “That’s used as evidence in the trial and, if for some reason the child has to testify, the dogs can actually go to court with them.”
Trained to take anything
On the day that West Newsmagazine visited Bronner’s classroom, children plopped down next to Calvin, hugged him, crowded around him and left him very little personal space. But Calvin took it all in stride.
“The dogs are actually trained and chosen because they can take anything,” said Dahlkamp. “However, and I say a big ‘however,’ we don’t allow that to happen. The teacher has to have some management of the class and be able to coordinate it and kind of wrangle in a class if they do get out of hand.”
That said, Dahlkamp said dogs like Calvin “have a tolerance that goes above and beyond.”
Support Dogs celebrates its 30-year anniversary in 2013. It has never had an incident of a dog becoming aggressive.
“What we find is that the dog helps calm these kids,” Dahlkamp said. “It’s magical. … I don’t know how to explain it, but the dogs just seem to be a calming presence for them.”
Celebrating 30 years of service
Support Dogs began in Columbus, Ohio, in 1981, when a woman named Sandy Maze, who suffered from muscular dystrophy, trained her German shepherd, Stormy, to help her do mobility-related tasks.
In 1983, the St. Louis chapter of Support Dogs for the Handicapped (which it was called then) opened. When the Columbus, Ohio, segment of Support Dogs was acquired, St. Louis became the national headquarters for what is now Support Dogs, Inc.
Although Support Dogs started out training service dogs to assist those with physical disabilities, it has grown, over time, to train therapy dogs that are used in nursing homes, hospitals and schools; hearing dogs for the deaf and hard of hearing; psychiatric service dogs to help those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; and, most recently, court advocacy dogs to help children who have been physically, mentally or sexually abused.
In 1989 as a response to increasing requests from those in the medical community, Support Dogs, Inc. began a program to provide pet visitation therapy to facilities in the St. Louis Metropolitan area. The TOUCH (Therapy of Unique Canine Helpers) Program certifies volunteers and their own dogs to visit health care and other facilities in which the patients or residents can benefit from a visit with a well-trained canine. To date, the TOUCH Program has certified over 1,000 volunteer teams and visits over 50,000 patients, residents, their families and facility staff annually.
The obedience and patience required of therapy dogs is enviable, but not out of reach. Support Dogs also offers obedience classes for family pets including AKC S.T.A.R. puppy classes for pups ages 8-20 weeks and beginning adult classes for dogs 21 weeks of age and older.
In both classes, dogs and their owners learn how to communicate positively by using the core obedience skills such as coming when called, walking with a loose leash, sitting down quietly and staying reliably for a short (puppies) or reasonable (adults) length of time.
Additional classes including handling classes for would-be show dogs also are offered.
For more information about Support Dogs, its programs and events, visit supportdogs.org.