Therapy dog hopes to comfort students, help improve reading

Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski Hillcrest Primary School kindergarten student Ashton Powell, right, giggles as therapy dog Grace takes a closer look during a classroom visit Monday as Jessica Barforth, left, and Molly Hanson look on. Grace will primarily work with students individually or in small groups.

Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski Kindergarten students at Hillcrest Primary School marvel as Grace, the new therapy dog for Hillcrest and LEADS Charter School, pays them a visit Monday afternoon. Although Grace will make some classroom visits, she’ll primarily be working with students individually or in small groups.

Students at Hillcrest Primary School and LEADS Charter School aren’t allowed to bring their pets to school, but now they’ll be able to turn to man’s best friend whenever they’re down.

Students at the two schools, which share the same building, were introduced to Grace, a black Labrador now working as the schools’ therapy dog, on Monday. Officials hope Grace will help to improve student behavior and even encourage shy students to read aloud.

Kindergarten students burst into smiles and giggles as Grace walked in and sat quietly. Students took the opportunity to pet her and asked a variety of questions, like what she eats and where she lives when she’s not making the rounds.

Erin Prey, school psychologist, will be utilizing Grace when she makes her once-a-week visits to the building. She plans to work with students one-on-one or in groups and hopes that Grace will be a calming influence, help to curb incidents of bullying and retaliation, and assist students who are dealing with emotional issues.

“My role as a school psychologist is going to be working with individual students who might be having a bad day or have experienced trauma,” Prey said. “Just working with the therapy dog is very comforting to kids who have experienced trauma in the past.”

Grace was already receiving accolades from Prey on Monday when a kindergarten student came in, crying and upset. After 10 minutes of petting Grace, the student left smiling, Prey said.

“It was a situation that was probably not going to be calmed by any human being, but just by petting her, (the student) felt comforted, and you could see her anxiety lifted,” Prey said. “Dogs are non-judgmental and unconditional beings. They love everyone.”

Kris Going, a literacy instructional coach, is eager to see how reading skills will improve with Grace listening as students read out loud to her.

Grace will enable students to practice their reading skills without adults or other students stopping and correcting them, according to Going. She noted that the Shawano City-County Library has been offering monthly sessions for children to read to service dogs.

“We have some students who struggle with reading, and they have a hard time reading with their peers or their teachers,” Going said. “We’re hoping to include some opportunities for kids to read to Grace.”

Grace received her certification with Therapy Dogs International in February with her owner, Curt Preston, an intervention teacher at Hillcrest and LEADS. There was a $10 testing fee, and the district will pay a $40 annual membership fee to keep her in the program.

Part of the certification included basic sitting and staying, dealing with another person with Preston out of the room, interacting with people on crutches and in wheelchairs, and staying still when someone pulled out a treat.

“She was not allowed to eat the treat out of the hand of the person,” Preston said. “In another instance, the treat was tossed on the floor, and she had to walk by without gobbling it up.”

Grace has been with the Preston family for about six years.

“There’s just something about her temperament. She’s very easy going and gets along with everyone,” Preston said. “She’s pretty smart and very easy to train. My son uses her for a 4-H project, and she’s done well at the fair. A lot of people have asked about her training, but there wasn’t any school she went off to.”

The idea of having a therapy dog in school is still fairly new in Wisconsin. In the Menasha School District, school resource officer Jeff Jorgenson brings his police K-9, Geller, to do double duty as a service dog, Going said.

According to Going, schools in Appleton, Kaukauna and Wrightstown are also looking at getting therapy dogs.

“Overall, I just think she’s someone we’re all looking forward to having here,” Going said. “I think she’ll help move the kids and staff.”