Archive for Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Four-legged helpers

Counselors: Dogs benefit students at district’s elementary schools

November 21, 2006

Bailey and Zip are very possibly the most popular teachers in the Basehor-Linwood school district.

They spend their days strolling the halls, greeting students and visiting classrooms. On occasion, you might find them napping in their offices or chasing after a ball thrown by a student.

Bailey and Zip are no ordinary teachers. They're yellow Labrador retrievers that are a silent, yet calming -- and furry -- influence in the lives of young students.

Marilyn McGown, counselor at Glenwood Ridge and Linwood elementary schools, started the social dog program in the district more than a decade ago with another yellow Lab, Hunter.

McGown had read about a teacher who had taken her dog to school and noticed positive changes in students. So McGown began researching the possibility of starting a program in Basehor.

"I thought that if we could have a dog that belonged to the whole school, there would just be tremendous benefits," McGown said.

Kansas Specialty Dog Services in Washington, Kan., allowed Hunter to become the first social dog used in a school district in Kansas. Puppies raised by the organization go through basic obedience training, temperament testing and specific training to grow up and become assistance dogs for those with disabilities or social dogs, like those used in counseling programs at schools. Those interested in receiving a dog from KSDS must apply and go through training with the dog before taking them home.

The now-retired 14-year-old Hunter has paved the way for his 3-year-old female predecessor, Zip. One of the newest employees in the district, Zip's constantly wagging tail and wiggling body lets everybody know she's excited to be there.

"Hunter was a very calming influence," McGown said. "There is a whole other aspect the kids enjoy with Zip. She is more energetic and wants to play."

Bailey, who has been a staple at Basehor Elementary School, for about six years, is a little more laid back, but equally as important to the students.

She tiptoes carefully over the shiny tile floors of the hallways and gladly welcomes a rug or carpeted classroom under her paws. She became a little skittish of the tile after slipping and injuring her leg last year, but her hundreds of owners stepped up and raised money to help Ellen Knight, counselor at BES, pay the veterinary bill.

"She's just a calming effect in the whole school," Knight said. "She's very important. It's that common thing that they (students) all have together."

Unlike Hunter and Zip, Bailey is not a KSDS dog. When Knight was in school, she did her thesis on starting a social dog program. When she was hired to her first counseling position in Lawrence, they wanted the school to have a dog and she said it all kind of fell together. Knight found Bailey through a breeder and sent her to Frank Miller in McLouth for training. Bailey's temperament was perfect for children, Knight said, and she passed two tests in order to be by Knight's side on her first day of counseling.

"It was a wonderful way for me to meet the kids faster -- to build that bridge," she said.

Both McGown and Knight incorporate the dogs into every lesson they teach the students.

Last Tuesday afternoon, Zip was stretched out quietly on the floor as McGown began her lesson on citizenship with a GRE second grade class. The students gave examples on how they show citizenship with Zip, such as petting her, throwing the ball for her or taking her for walks.

"You guys are showing good citizenship by being nice to Zip," McGown said to the class.

While the students made posters, McGown lead Zip from desk to desk to say hello to each student, then let her casually walk around the room. The students called her name, scratched her ears and laughed when she crawled under desks to investigate.

After the lesson was over, McGown and Zip headed back to McGown's office where Zip had a long drink of water and curled up to take a nap.

A second-grade class at BES enjoyed the company of Bailey Thursday afternoon as Knight read a book and talked about kindness. When asked how the students show kindness to Bailey, one student remembered how they raised money to help with Bailey's hurt leg.

"That was such a great random act of kindness for Bailey," Knight said to the class.

Both dogs have become an incentive for students to do better in school. As a reward for good behavior, students can read to the dogs, have lunch with them or just spend a little extra time with them.

Bailey and Zip also are a way to get students to talk and work through problems.

"I've had parents come in and say that their children are so afraid of dogs," Knight said. "Three weeks after school started, I couldn't remember who those kids were. Those kids come up and hug Bailey now. It's a really good tool for kids who are afraid."

McGown said the dogs have often become a comforting shoulder to cry on or someone to listen when nobody else could possibly understand.

Both McGown and Knight agree that the program has brought a positive vibe to the schools and will continue for several years to come. As the almost 9-year-old Bailey nears retirement age, Knight has an excited 3-year-old golden retriever, Madi, waiting in the wings to become the next social dog.

"We think it's a really good resource to use with kids," McGown said. "Dogs are just good ambassadors for the schools."

"I truly wish we had a dog in every school," Knight said.

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