The most recent addition to the University High School staff cannot read, do math or carry on a conversation, yet he may help students in a way that eludes teachers and counselors.
He can sit, stay, come and, most significantly, simply be, a relaxing presence for an agitated or troubled student, or a nonthreatening friend for others.
Bear, a mellow 1-year-old sheepadoodle, has began his rounds this summer at University High School because the Waco Independent School District’s first emotional support animal. While his specific duties and schedule are still in development, the dog and his handler, English teacher and cheerleader sponsor Alyssa Grammer, already have gotten familiar sights at University’s gym and hallways.
The unassuming Bear already has won over University’s cheerleading squad as they train and prepare for the college yr.
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“He’s their baby,” Grammer said. “They eventually want him to be a part of their pyramid. They’ve really adopted him.”
Bear and a second dog planned for the Greater Waco Advanced Health Care Academy are the most recent addition to the district’s mental health resources. Waco ISD has added a licensed skilled counselor for worker support this yr and is introducing recent social emotional curriculum for college kids and staff.
The expanded resources are intended partially to handle the emotional and psychological toll of COVID-19 on students, teachers and staff during the last two years, Superintendent Susan Kincannon said.
Emotional support animals add an often helpful component when working with students who’re shy, withdrawn, troubled or coping with trauma, said Rachelle Warren, assistant superintendent for student services and support.
“We are likely to respond in a different way when there’s a dog or an animal within the room. They will have an actual calming effect,” Warren said.
Within the presence of a friendly, non-threatening dog, students sometimes open up and share what’s bothering them or they find interaction easier, she said.
Bear’s owner and trainer is Buffalo-based Bella’s Buddies Inc., which has provided support dogs to colleges, veterans hospitals and other organizations.
Kincannon, in reality, knew Bella’s Buddies and its K9U program from her years in Belton ISD when one among its dogs helped students recuperate from a crisis situation.
Amanda Davis, a former classroom teacher, and her husband, Tom, run Bella’s Buddies, raising and training dogs, normally golden retrievers and goldendoodles, as support animals. Additionally they train the dogs’ handlers and caretakers.
They’ve worked with or have plans to work with Central Texas school districts in Belton, Gatesville, Bosqueville, Valley Mills and China Spring. Their dogs serve school programs for special needs students, occupational or speech therapy or specific counseling needs.
Davis said training starts early with puppies raised in sensory-rich environments to sharpen their attention, then chosen for further instruction in line with their temperament. At 12 weeks, Bear began social conditioning by being put in an elementary school classroom. As he grew older, he showed the calming and companionable qualities that make him suitable for emotional support work. Bear then learned the fundamental commands needed for work as an emotional support dog.
When Grammer volunteered to be a handler, she was also volunteering for training of her own. She learned the ins-and-outs of handling a dog: a basic vocabulary of commands including heel, sit, stay, come and leave; the way to read Bear’s behavior and moods; the way to walk through crowds or handle with people nearby; feeding; watering; and general care.
A part of a handler’s job is setting the principles for the individuals who need to interact with the dog, including asking permission to pet, petting on the dog’s shoulder or back somewhat than approaching from the face, and being gentle.
Grammer also had to think about the house front and her 3-year-old German shepherd, Gigi. Luckily, the 2 dogs proved compatible and perhaps complementary.
“They get along great. Bear gets up early, at 6 a.m. every morning and Gigi normally sleeps until noon,” Grammer said with amusing.
Bear is also along side the English teacher on her trips on the town. They take walks in Cameron Park before the temperature gets too high and sometimes buy groceries.
“He likes to go to Goal,” she said.
Once classes start, Bear will stick with Grammer in her classroom and accompany her to cheerleader practice and activities.
University Associate Principal Beth Brabham, who also volunteered and went through handler training, will take Bear when Grammer needs a break. Other teachers and students are trained to work with Bear, and his duties and schedule will expand, including appearances at football games and pep rallies, Brabham said.
She said she imagines certain periods can be put aside to be used by counselors and students, and a rest time in a quiet location can be a crucial a part of Bear’s day.
Bear is predicted to satisfy more students, teachers and oldsters during a University High open house Thursday.
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