Third grader Jesika Henley shares some reading time with Dixie the therapy dog. Bigelow Hill school counselor Nancy Baxter says Dixie makes 'magic happen' with the children.
BRYAN - Across northwest Ohio, some schools are going to the dogs.
Canine counselors - Allie in Bryan, Magic in Tiffin, and Dixie in Findlay - work each school day with students and staff, and as their success stories spread, more schools across northwest Ohio sign up for therapy dogs.
Allie, a golden retriever with a heart of gold, could easily be called the leader of the pack. The award-winning, professionally trained therapy dog was a Christmas gift to the Bryan Middle School student body in December, 2004, and since then people have been sitting up and taking notice of her work with students.
She's already made a name for herself in Ohio as well as Michigan, and in two weeks Allie heads West to make a presentation during the California Association of School Counselors' annual conference. On the cross-country airplane trip, Allie will ride in the cabin, alongside her co-workers, Shelley Wanner and Jackie Boyd. The school counselors made special arrangements for Allie's transportation to make sure the dog wouldn't have to ride in the cargo hold - an indication of the deep respect for Allie and her work.
In the mornings, she's a friendly face and a wagging tail that greets staff and students. In the counselor's office, she calmly listens to stressed-out students, and in the library she's a furry friend who doesn't criticize when children mispronounce words. Allie promotes goodwill, tolerance, and hospitality through her positive behavior, Mrs. Boyd said.
The dog's tale was featured in a Paperbacks for Education online mailing to educators in February, and since then, counselors in Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, and Missouri have contacted the Bryan Middle School to ask for details on Allie's workday.
Bigelow Hill Intermediate School students Jenna Lewis, Katelyn Frost, Alexis Franks, and Steven Holtgreven walk Dixie back to school after recess. School counselor Nancy Baxter joins them.
"It's amazing how word of our dear Allie is spreading. We think it's wonderful," Mrs. Wanner said.
Bob Tyra, senior project director at the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said California educators are interested in canine counselors because of Allie's successes, and officials are trying to find a facility that can train school therapy dogs in the Los Angeles area. The office of education is picking up expenses for the Bryan counselors' trip.
"Nationwide, we've seen a real surge of people understanding the benefit of dogs in people's lives. It's a trend nationally," said Chris Diefenthaler, executive director of Assistance Dogs of America Inc., a Swanton-based organization. Allie was an assistance dog for a man who'd had a stroke, but when he died in 2003, the canine was returned to Assistance Dogs of America. After additional training, Allie was linked with the Bryan Middle School, where students had worked on a service learning project to raise funds for the Assistance Dogs of America.
Although animals have been part of therapy programs, such as in nursing homes, for many years, the school therapy dog program "has a different spin," Mrs. Diefenthaler said. "If a counselor's dog comes to the school to visit or to play, it is still the counselor's dog. In this model, the dog belongs to the students. This whole concept is much more powerful and is much more meaningful."
Four schools - Wauseon's Burr Road Middle School, Anthony Wayne's Fallen Timbers Middle School, and two schools in Findlay - are on the Assistance Dogs of America's waiting list for dogs. There is no cost to schools for the dogs.
"We don't want the dog to be thought of as any expense or as a program that could be cut," Mrs. Diefenthaler said.
Schools are responsible, however, for the dogs' housing, food, and health care; community support helps pay expenses, and veterinarians donate care for the dogs.
A new component of the dogs in schools program has been added: research to support Allie's successes.
In the next couple of months, a study on school therapy dogs will be conducted by Amber Lange, a doctoral student at the University of Toledo. Counselors who have incorporated dogs into their schools will be interviewed to determine "why they find that having an animal as part of their practice is helpful," said Mrs. Lange, who became interested in research work on human-animal interaction after watching Allie and the two Bryan counselors make a presentation at an Ohio counselors conference.
"When you saw that, you knew that it was helpful. You saw that it touched the kids," Mrs. Lange said.
Rick Heintschel, principal of Fallen Timbers Middle School, said the staff at his school is excited about the school therapy dog program and noted that when the dog arrives, it won't be any one person's dog.
"This is Fallen Timbers' dog. This is the students' dog," he said. It could take 6 to 18 months for a dog to be trained for Fallen Timbers; the school is second in line for a dog behind Wauseon's middle school.
In Findlay, a 55-pound golden retriever/border collie mix named Dixie is "making magic happen when she is with the children," said Nancy Baxter, school counselor at Bigelow Hill Intermediate School. She applied for a dog for the school after learning about Allie.
Schools keep parents informed about the dogs, and parents' concerns are addressed. Dixie is steered away from students with allergies, for instance.
Some people come to the school and see that Dixie isn't wowing the crowds with tricks and wonder what all the fuss is about, but the magic is there, Mrs. Baxter said. "Dixie really does love the kids. She seeks out the children's company. She calms them down if they are hurt in the nurse's office with scraped knees. The climate just becomes more positive when a dog is there."
On a recent day, a third-grade boy fainted in class. Without any direction or coaching, Dixie went to work.
"She went over to the boy, sniffed, and laid down. She licked him on top of the head," said Mrs. Baxter. A nurse tended to the ill child, but Dixie stayed there by the boy's side.
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