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Students Benefit from Canine Helpers

Photo Credit: Michele Skalicky

Pele is a standard poodle—large and gray with curly hair and long floppy ears, the seven-year-old dog is a staple in Nanette Taylor’s special education classroom at Nixa Junior High.

She taught art at Nixa when she came to the district from Miller, and brought her standard poodles to school to be used as models.  They excelled at working with children, she says, so Taylor began training them to help in the classroom.

She received permission from Nixa Junior High Principal Colby Fronterhouse to bring Pele, a dog she’s rescued from a local animal shelter, to school each day when she began teaching special education.  He’s trained to reward positive behaviors from students.

"In my classroom a lot of my students have avoidance behaviors, they're very off-task.  They do not like the school work, and when they do sit down and work, then Pele will walk over, sit with them, lay beside them, and he'll stay there the entire time they're working," she said.

Taylor has seen an extreme decrease in negative behaviors including aggression since Pele arrived.  Her students are sometimes emotionally disturbed, and the dog has brought a calming presence into the classroom.

She remembers one incident in which Pele proved extremely helpful.

"I had two students that were going to attack each other.  They were escalating, and we had cleared the classroom.  It was just my para, the dog and these students, and the dog got between the students.  He had his head on one student and a paw on the other, and they won't aggress with the dog.  They don't want to harm him, they feel very protective of him and so they started talking to the dog instead of to each other, they sat down, and they sat down and just petted the dog for about twenty minutes until they were calm enough to talk to each other," she said.

Marcus Krett is a paraprofessional and retired school superintendent who works in Taylor’s classroom.  He’s seen firsthand how Pele has made a difference, especially with two particular students.

"Whenever the one that could be a discipline problem, when he would really get off-task and, as we say, would lose it, then when Pele would come in or he'd get by Pele then he would calm down, and, of course, that helped the whole class and the other one that had a difficult time focusing, the dog would help him focus," he said.

And students with developmental disabilities and other disorders have overcome fears and made strides due to Pele’s presence.  According to Taylor, one student who has autism started to become agitated when his mom was late picking him up from school.  Pele walked over and leaned against him and the student calmed down.  Azure, a sweet junior high student with big brown eyes, is at an 18-month-old developmental level.  She was afraid of the swing until she was received encouragement from Pele.

"So, one Friday I taught my dog to get on the swing so that she would get on the swing with him and so he'll lay on the swing so she can swing on it," she said.

Azure's classmate, Quinn, who has asperger’s syndrome, says he loves having a dog in the classroom.   Pele reminds him of a service dog he had who died unexpectedly.

"It's like you have something in common," he said.

Principal Fronterhouse is impressed with Pele.  He says he was unsure about having a dog in the classroom at first, but he and Pele have become best buds—when the dog goes into the office with Taylor and Fronterhouse’s door is closed, he’ll wait outside until the door opens and the principal can say hello.

The Springfield School District has several therapy dogs in its classrooms.  Robberson Elementary, on E. Kearney, has five.  Robberson is a Title One school with a large percentage of kids on free or reduced lunches.  Some are homeless, according to teacher Ginger Phillips who uses a therapy dog in her 4thgrade classroom, and the only meals they often get are the ones they eat at school.

Siren, a black lab was trained partly by inmates in the prison system in Kansas and Colorado through an organization called Cares, Inc. that prepares dogs for a variety of services.

Phillips calls Siren a very special dog who is extremely well-behaved and non-aggressive. 

When Siren is wearing her blue vest it means anyone can pet her with her Phillips’ permission, and she can go into any public area in Missouri.

Phillips says the dog helps struggling readers and knows when someone needs unconditional love.

"I had a little boy, and this has been two years ago, who lived in a garage of a friend's.  Mom and dad were both incarcerated in different locations.  He came in very often not clean and was exhausted, and he would go back at recess time and lay on her and rest.  They became very close.  Sometimes I think that may have been his best rest of the day," she said.

Phillips feels like having a therapy dog has changed her classroom.  She says it teaches students responsibility but also allows them to see that there’s care for them—not just from their teacher but from someone who won’t talk back to them.

"Unconditional love, and so many kids have a need for that because for whatever reason home lives may be difficult, and Siren does not care wehre they came from or how they live, she's just there to love on them," she said.

Phillips and Taylor require students to follow special rules when their dogs are in the classroom.  Taylor says students can’t pet Pele unless he approaches them.  And students in Phillips’ classroom know they aren’t allowed to feed Siren when they’re eating breakfast.

Siren (Photo Credit: Michele Skalicky) Ginger Phillips and Siren (Photo Credit: Michele Skalicky) Pele (Photo Credit: Michele Skalicky) Azure and Pele (Photo Credit: Michele Skalicky) Azure, Pele and Nanette Taylor (Photo Credit: Michele Skalicky)