Piper, Jack, Chester and Maddy enjoy spending time in school. Although there may be children with those same names learning in Philomath School District classrooms, we’re referring here to a fuzzy foursome that brings an amiable and approachable element to the learning environment.
Each canine has a distinctive personality that many children have come to love. Piper’s now in her fourth year helping calm down anxious students at Clemens Primary School. Jack’s crazy cute face and demeanor makes him a popular attraction in Philomath Elementary’s library.
Then there’s the calm lab, Chester, making his rounds in Philomath High’s library. And Maddy might be the oldest of the group but she fits right in with creating a smooth, relaxing atmosphere in the high school’s freshman hall area.
Let’s meet the dogs of the Philomath School District.
The effect that the dogs have on the students around them can be an incredible sight to see. Clemens Primary Principal Abby Couture can quickly share a few stories about her 3-year-old Piper.
“We have a kiddo that’s really having a hard time, very angry, wanting to throw things and hit and kick,” she said. “But as soon as he saw Piper, he put his attention on Piper and (we) said, ‘hey, look, Piper’s scared — you need to have a calm voice around Piper’ and he immediately calmed down.”
The value of the pup’s presence can not be denied.
“She works wonders with the kids because the expectation is that they can sit and they can be angry and they can pet her until they get themselves back to a calm place,” Couture said. “And then we can talk about whatever’s bothering them.”
Piper has been accompanying Couture to Clemens Primary School since the fall of 2018 when she was a young puppy.
“I had been doing a lot of research on ways to help kids that are not able to regulate their emotions effectively,” Couture said. “One of the things I came across was emotional support dogs are really effective with kids because kids interact differently with animals than they do with humans.”
Couture said that her research pointed to the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel as the top breed to serve as a therapy or emotional support dog. Piper comes in at 75% Cavalier and 25% beagle.
“I got her and trained her here at school,” Couture said. “So that’s her job, that’s what she does. And we’ve seen the way that she’s helped so many kids that have come through these walls.”
Piper’s favorite place during the day is to lay down on a couch in Couture’s office. But she also likes to go outside for a break, even sensing when her owner needs a minute to collect her thoughts on the day.
“She’s pretty amazing at sensing people’s emotions,” Couture said.
Couture said this school year has been particularly trying with some really challenging students. After being away from the office for a period of time with a student, she’ll sit down at her desk and start to get on with principal-related duties. That’s when Piper might scratch at the blinds, her way of saying she needs to go potty.
“Sometimes, she doesn’t even go when we go out; she just senses that I need to go for a walk, I’m guessing, because it always helps me recharge myself,” Couture said. “So we have our routine and we go out a couple of times a day and just do a little walk in a loop. She does her thing and it’s really good for me because I can get out, too.”
Piper occasionally visits kids in classrooms.
“Sometimes the kids will earn positive action parties in their classroom for good behavior,” Couture said. “They’ll choose to have a Piper party, so Piper gets to come and visit in the classroom with the kids.”
A playful, 2-1/2-year-old King Charles spaniel, Jack’s pretty good with people by providing a calming presence during those needed moments. For example, near the end of the last academic year, his owner, Debbie Johnson, remembers getting a call from a classroom teacher who asked if Jack could visit.
“I brought him down there and she (a student) was bawling,” Johnson said. “I handed him to her, she snuggled him and I left the room. I came back, she put him down and got on with her day.”
Jack joined Johnson’s family after the last of the children left the house.
“We empty-nested and got a puppy right before they moved out, so he’s become our child,” Johnson said.
Johnson worked in the school’s “behavior room” and believed a dog could not only be a great family pet, but help distressed students on campus.
“I kind of saw it as like a dual thing that might work really well,” she said. “I had done research and these guys are solid around kids — the King Charles spaniel. So my motivation was always to make him accessible to my church and school, if they wanted him.”
The school had no issues with Jack and so he started going to the behavior room with Johnson as a puppy, visiting and taking part in classroom activities. Jack started going regularly this past spring following a tragedy that impacted students and staff at the school.
“He came as support for staff and students and it became really clear that he did not detract from learning and that he added to it; he adds a calm to the building,” Johnson said.
Johnson describes Jack as quiet and calm but he can also match a person’s energy.
“So if you were excited and want him to be excited with you, kids will get on the ground and want him to climb all over and he’ll do that,” Johnson. “But if he notices that you’re not reaching down to pet him, he just moves on to somebody else.”
Johnson, who is a media assistant in the library, works with every class at the elementary school level, which also includes Blodgett and Clemens, for about 30 minutes per week (although Jack doesn’t go to the primary school).
“In every single class, he has an opportunity to go visit the class,” Johnson said. “We do a quick lesson and then when the lesson’s over, I open up the gate and he meanders around and he helps kids pick out books. But he has a very calming demeanor. … I have noticed that the noise level goes down when I let him out.”
Johnson said she also has several others who are not regular library students visit Jack on a regular basis.
“When he starts his day, there’s one from Life Skills that comes down and kind of lays in his bed with him and visits him and then he moves on with his day — it’s an important part of his day,” Johnson said. “And I have several from Resource who earn visits with him. If they do their work on time, they’ll come down for a quick pet.”
In addition, Jack also helps out off-campus counselors who come into the building to work with students, using an office not too far from his home base.
“They use him all the time for quick little mental resets and a break,” Johnson said.
Jack spends a lot of his school day in a spot set up for him within view of the kids.
“The classes come in and after they’re settled down and check out books, I open the gate and he runs around and visits,” Johnson said.
He also has a spot under Johnson’s desk if “he needs a timeout and doesn’t want a visit.”
In Philomath High School’s library, a friendly yellow lab named Chester walks in and around tables, getting his share of pets and while interacting with student visitors.
“I think it gives kids another reason to come to the library,” media assistant Kiki Klipfel said. “Some students will come specifically to see Chester but it also makes it a more friendly atmosphere, maybe a little more casual with a dog wandering around. Sometimes, it makes it a little more lively — not that we always need that in there … but it’s just another element.”
Klipfel has noticed certain students that appear to benefit just from petting Chester.
“Some kids have really found him to be — I don’t know, I don’t want to say calming — but some kids just need to sit and pet Chester for 10 minutes and that’s been really nice to have that for those kids who need that,” Klipfel said.
A particular student who is no longer in the district really took the pup.
“She would come every single morning and lay with him on his bed and that’s how she started her day,” Klipfel said. “That was really nice to see that he was kind of providing that place for her to touch base at the beginning of the day.”
Klipfel said her family had a lab for several years that had to be put to sleep and wanted to get another dog. Chester came along out of a litter that her brother had with their dog.
A 1-1/2-year-old yellow lab, Chester eased into life in the library with no students in the building during distance learning.
“He was here last spring when the kids came back,” Klipfel said. “He’s been coming, really, since I got him when he was 8 weeks old — off and on.”
What’s a typical day like with Chester?
“I get up early, early in the morning to get all of his wiggles out before we come to school,” Klipfel laughed. “He has a good long walk before school and then usually, it’s pretty quiet in the morning after that.”
When students come into the library, Chester enjoys socializing.
“He’ll just make his rounds and he gets lots of attention,” Klipfel said. “There’s a spot here where he can take his naps when he’s tired or when he needs a break.”
Lunchtime is a highlight of the day.
“He loves lunchtime because either things are on the floor or he gets little treats given to him,” Klipfel said. “Some students love to just sit and pet him and play with him and he thinks he’s a lap dog sometimes and students are receptive to that. He loves that.”
Maddy has been accompanying Brown, a special programs instructor, to the high school for the past three years.
“She has been a natural therapy dog and seems to make everyone’s day brighter,” Brown said. “Her first year was the 2019-2020 school year and she was in heaven. When we shut down due to COVID-19, she was seriously depressed for a couple of weeks.”
A German shorthair pointer, Maddy is 8 years old.
“My brother-in-law, who breeds German shorthair pointers, gave her to us as a gift and she has been an amazing member of our family,” Brown said. “Maddy has always been very tender-hearted and easy to work with and train.”
Brown said she has always wanted a therapy dog as a teacher working in special education.
“I trained Maddy with that in mind, but it took a few years to get her approved to be in the building,” she said. “Initially, the district was concerned about liability, however, Maddy loves being at school and loves the kids. She is protective of the students and loves being around them.”
Maddy has developed certain routines at school, Brown said, from knowing where to get treats to how she approaches students in the classroom.
“When we walk into classrooms, the students do a great job giving her love, but not allowing her to be a distraction,” Brown said. “Maddy will wander the room checking in with students. It always blows my mind that she seems to land on students who are struggling.”
Maddy also comforts students who need a “Moment With Maddy.”
“These students are struggling with anxiety or depression, or going through something else tough,” Brown said. “They are able to leave their class at any time and come to our room to hang out with Maddy.”
An office located in the back of the classroom serves as a space for the student-canine encounters.
“We have tried to create a space that is soothing and relaxing,” Brown said. “Students can relax there with Maddy and calm down. Maddy has also been called to the office to support students in crisis.”
Maddy even provides a calming influence on the high school’s incoming freshmen. Brown’s classroom is located in the freshman hall.
“The freshman year of high school comes with a lot of nerves, and having Maddy in that hall between classes, and before and after school, provides a distraction to students but also provides them an extra layer of support,” Brown said. “Over the last three years, there have been several times that I have been brought to tears seeing the difference Maddy has made for students.”
Brown said Maddy also supports staff members, including Brown herself.
“She really senses when we are under stress and wants to comfort us,” Brown said. “It is an incredible thing to experience — the unconditional love with nothing expected in return.”
One part of the experience of having Maddy at school for Brown is seeing how new students react to a dog wandering the halls.
“Sometimes Maddy and I get introduced to families that are new to PHS and parents are always so excited that PHS has a therapy dog,” Brown said. “I think it demonstrates that we really want to do the right thing for students and have tried to think outside of the box for our students.”
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