Friday, September 21, 2012

The Dog in BYOD-- make sure you have tissues ready

On the Moose River near Jackman, ME
Brody is 8.5 years old and with his graying muzzle, it is evident that he is starting to show his age. I'm reminded that my super-hero dog is mortal. This scares me.


Brody has been a faithful companion, trail buddy, swim partner, and emotional rock for 8.5 years now. For 7 of those years he has walked the halls of Southern Regional with me, saying hi to students and staff, offering an ear for reading,  snoozing while I teach, and soothing anyone in need.


You have to understand that while Brody is my family pet, he has been a therapy dog for over 2,000 people a year for the past 7 years. He isn't just my dog, and he is much much more than an unofficial school mascot. Brody is a founding member of the PAWS therapy dog program at Southern.

A portion of The Southern PAWS pack: Brody, Sage, & Dusty (Not pictured: Marker & Harley)
8.5 years ago my district went through a crisis: we had multiple deaths from car accidents, suicides, and illness. In a 2 year period, we had over 10 student/staff deaths. One of those deaths broke me and it took a puppy, my husband, and amazing staff (B.D. especially!) at my school to put me back together. One of my swimmers, left me a suicide note on my desk, the cliche, "By the time you read this...." By the time I read her note, she was gone. After staying after school with me, she had walked with me to the main entrance, as I continued on to my car, she ran back to my room and put the note on my desk. That night, she killed herself. I have learned that despite no matter how many times I go over in my mind ways to prevent her death or things I could have done differently, there is nothing I could actually do. It was out of my control. 8.5 years later, I have accepted & excepted that as much as anyone can accept & except it: LIFE goes on, even after death.

Brody is 2nd from the right wearing a purple ribbon.
Two weeks after my swimmer's death, our 6 week old chocolate lab puppy was delivered from the breeder. Oh, those sad puppy dog eyes! Raising and training Brody over the course of the next year helped get me through the depression, and it was from our basic obedience trainer that I first learned about therapy dogs.

Brody on his first morning "walk".
The science behind therapy dogs focuses on one simple premise: petting a dog makes one feel good. Studies have been done on the physical effect of interacting with animals. I could bore you with A Dog's Purpose and Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain and don't tell me you don't think of your own dog while reading and get teary-eyed.
statistics on how one's blood pressure is lowered when petting, but the simple fact is this: being with a dog makes a person happy. Why else did we domesticate dogs and let them in our homes eons ago? Go read Bruce Cameron's

Thank you  R.M. for this great shot! Brody plays "Sandy" in Annie.
Long story short, I realized what an amazing and simple thing therapy dogs could do for students in the classroom and the overall school environment, and made it my mission to get Brody certified. Longer story shorter, after getting certified, another teacher and I wrote proposals, gave presentations and the two of us got approval to start the Pets Assisting Willing Students (PAWS) therapy dog program. As far as I know, we are the only high school in NJ that has therapy dogs in school 5 days a week.

In the 7 years of the program, we've had 5 dogs (Brody, Sage, Dusty, Marker, & Harley) attend classes, participate in an after school reading program (BARK: Books And Reading with K-9s), interact with students, visit the special ed and autism classrooms, and when called upon, participate in crisis intervention and management. Brody even played the role of "Sandy" in the school's production of Annie. In the 7 years that Brody has attended school-- he still hasn't made it out of the 9th grade-- he and the other PAWS pack members have impacted thousands of people, staff and students alike.

In my classroom, I have ZERO truancy. I have ZERO lates. My behavior issues have also decreased. I have witnessed the surliest, meanest looking student in school, break into a big, goofy grin and get o the floor to pet Brody. I have watched regular education students stop in the halls to talk to a special education student who was walking Brody on leash. A dog is a bridge that connects us to ourselves and each other.


While I fear his mortality, Brody's years of service aren't over yet, and if he has made you smile, laugh, and be happy to be here (even from looking at these pictures), then he has done his job.

Here are some shots of the PAWS pack in action over the years.













Always remember, more wag & less bark!
Go get your dreams, like a lab retrieves a ball!
Happy Tails!





8 comments:

  1. Oh Kate! What a terrible thing you went through. I am so glad you were able to make it through and find something wonderful on the other side. If only more schools could have a PAWS program! Brody is a special dog. xo

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  2. Such a brilliant idea! Already my mind is buzzing how these dogs just may help some students with aspergers syndrome. A beautiful post!

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  3. Thanks Mel-- that ol' saying, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" certainly applies here. I never want to go through that experience again, so I do everything in my power to prevent it.

    @Gemma: it is AMAZING seeing this in action. The last picture is one of the students in the Autism program who when we first starting doing walks wouldn't talk or make eye contact with me. Today, we can have a conversation and he knows my name. Therapy dogs have such untapped potential in education. We're only hitting the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

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  4. This story made me cry, but at the same time, confirmed something I have believed for a long time. People need dogs! My yellow lab was an unofficial therapy dog when I adopted my sons from the foster care system. She played a huge part in their healing! Here's to a very long and happy life for your sweet guy!

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  5. Kate, I had to scroll through all of your amazing blog posts to see what Dog meant in the title of your blog site, and I am in need of a tissue after reading this story. You have done a wonderful thing, by adding the PAWS therapy dog program at your high school. I am positive this has made a difference in the students' lives! You rock!

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  6. Thank you, Carol & Laura! It is such a simple concept, but carries a lasting impact for staff and students alike. THANKS for reading! Now, go give your dog a good belly scratch and a biscuit! :-D

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  7. Kate, this is a great story, happy & sad, but it goes to prove that yes, indeed pet companions do make us feel better and researchers have proven that as well. Although the process might be long for obedience training, certification and request to the board might take a while, all the years that Brody and the others have been there really make a difference with the kids. I would love to eventually have a therapy animal in the classroom, I am just unsure of how parents, colleagues and superiors might react to this. It is definitely something I will look into now and when I am finally a teacher (as I am currently completing my bachelor's). What you have done with Brody is amazing, keep on going!

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  8. Our administration was cautiously optimistic when I started the program with a colleague 8 years ago. All students have to sign a permission slip first and initially, the dogs were only in school 1 day a week for about an hour. Classroom door was closed and if you didn't sign the permission slip you couldn't know there was a dog in the building. After we proved the validity of the program, we gradually increased the time and number of days a week to acclimate the dogs to the school environment. Fast forward to today, students sign a permission slip in the beginning of the year, I check for allergy issues, then Brody comes to school 5 days a week all day long, following my schedule. School is a second home to him now. He can't wait to get out the door every morning and get there!

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