Therapy poodle filling many roles in the Liberty Schools system

LIBERTY — The black poodle stretched out on the cool tile hallway floor at W.S. Guy Middle School. Her head rested on the blue-jeaned leg of Janiya Brown as the 12-year-old girl ran her fingers through the soft, tight curls on the dog’s head.

“She’s, like, soothing,” Brown, a seventh-grader, said.

Sixth-grader Jermaine Watson, 11, patted the dog’s flank. “She makes people laugh. She makes people so happy.”

The poodle is Pawss, a full-time staff member of the district who works for bacon-flavored treat sticks, belly rubs and head scratches. She even has her own school yearbook photo.

Pawss, a credentialed therapy dog, works alongside middle school guidance counselor Kristie Sallee. Her canine duties range from academic enhancement to behavioral modification to just plain day-brightener.

“It’s amazing how many roles a dog can play,” Principal Andrew Scarmack said.

Students are able connect with the dog even if they’ve been putting up an emotional wall against classmates and staff, Scarmack said.

“It’s fun to see the personal side, the soft, tender type of person underneath,” he said. “Even the high school students, they get right down on the floor with her. When she walks into the room, she lights up the entire room.”

Often, if a student who is angry or upset can spend 15 minutes calming down with Pawss, that child is ready to talk to Sallee about what’s going on inside, what the issues are that caused the anger, he said.

“I had actually never heard of a school therapy dog,” Sallee said. “I was at a conference and another counselor mentioned it.”

Sallee learned about grants to purchase and train dogs for schools, but the waiting list is years long. “I don’t want to wait 10 years. I want to just get a dog and train it on my own,” she said.

She researched the field, put together a plan, got the idea approved by the former principal and then-Superintendent Stan Watson, and bought her own dog for $1,500 from an approved breeder. She chose a standard poodle instead of “the all-American family dog” golden retriever because poodles are hypoallergenic — far less likely to stir up allergies.

Pawss was born Jan. 15, 2016. Her name is an acronym the school uses to emphasize its positive behavioral support and intervention ideals:

Problem solver

Always respectful

Willing learner

Show responsibility

Safety

Pawss began training with the Canine Campus Training and Wellness Center in Hubbard as a puppy for her therapy dog credentials. Since dogs must be at least a year old before they can begin work, she didn’t make her on-campus debut until Feb. 6 of this year.

Now she comes to work every morning with Sallee.

“We come to see her every day,” Charlese Richardson, 13, seventh grade, said.

Meadow Smith, 11, sixth grade, said, “She comes into our classroom some days and hangs out a little bit. It’s nice to have her around.”

Sarah Spisak, 10, fifth grade, said, “I like if you get mad, you can come in here and pet her and she calms you down.”

Sallee said students have told her they don’t want to be sick because they don’t want to miss a day with Pawss. One boy who became upset over an incident in class asked to come sit with Pawss for a few minutes so he could settle, she said. Literacy students read to Pawss.

“Research shows children know a dog’s not going to judge them,” she said.

Second-grader Slade Snyder, 8, leaned back on a pillow next to Pawss, a book on his lap, ready to read to the poodle. “That’s the only time I’ll read, unless I have to,” he said. “I don’t like to read.”

First-grader Avah White, 7, snuggled into Pawss with her book.

“I have three dogs at home and I like to read to them.”

Katie Hank teaches leveled literacy intervention and reading recovery at next-door E.J. Blott Elementary School.

“The kids absolutely love to come to read to Pawss. They feel safe reading with Pawss,” Hank said. “They just enjoy being with the dog. They think it’s cool.”

Her students also write their own stories to share with the canine companion. They even make sure to show the pictures to the poodle, Hank said.

Pawss also is there if tragedy strikes. When a student passes away, it’s common for counselors from other school districts to be called in for additional help. Sallee took Pawss with her to another district for that reason earlier this year.

“It’s a hard day, it’s a horrible day for everybody,” she said. “Just us being there changed the whole atmosphere. It was still sad … but one little girl said to me ‘This is the only reason I smiled today.'”

On duty, Pawss rarely barks. She sits or lies quietly, even snoozes sometimes when students read to her. She trained for this job and she seems to take it seriously.

It’s a different story at home, Sallee said. “When she gets home, she unleashes all the energy she’s held in all day.”

The next morning, she’s back at school, lying on her carpet in Sallee’s office, ready to encourage, reward and perhaps to get another bacon treat.

“Her presence is amazing,” Sallee said. “She brings so much joy.”

bcole@tribtoday.com

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