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Brighton expands school therapy dog program

Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio
Duncan gives Maltby student Matthew Daniels a kiss before he gets on the bus for camp.

Brighton’s school district is the first in Michigan to buy its own therapy dogs for classrooms. The investment pays big dividends in student behavior and achievement. The district has plans to buy even more dogs.

As fifth and sixth graders at Maltby Intermediate School get ready for camp, the school therapy dog Duncan watches patiently. Most of the kids pet him as they head out the school doors to their buses. Duncan is a one-year-old yellow Labrador retriever. He knows he’s on the job because he’s wearing his work vest that says, “I’m friendly. Please pet me.”

Credit Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
When Duncan isn't with students, he sleeps in the school counselor's office.

To understand why Duncan is working at Maltby school, you have to go back about 10 years, to a dog named Ivan.

Ivan was a service dog who belonged to one of the school counselors. The counselor had Parkinson’s disease. Ivan was there to help her, not the students. But staff noticed that Ivan’s presence calmed the students. He would even put his head in their laps if they seemed upset.

Based on how well Ivan worked with those kids, school counselor Karen Storey and two other staff members petitioned the district to buy a dedicated therapy dog.

Credit Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Duncan's service vest encourages students to pet him.

“It was a no-brainer for me as a district leader because any advantage we can give to kids, any way that we can help more anxious kids be less anxious at school, we know that there’s going to be success,” says Dr. Greg Gray, the superintendent of Brighton Area Schools.

The school’s first therapy dog, Caesar, is now in semi-retirement at the high school. Duncan is the district’s second dog. Another dog, named Scout, is currently in training.

Dogs have traditionally not been allowed in schools because they’re rambunctious, messy, and loud. But Duncan isn’t a regular dog. He’s extremely well-trained. You might not even notice him lying quietly on a dog bed in the corner of the classroom. And he never makes a sound.

His duties include spending time in the classroom, listening while kids read aloud, and joining a daily gym class. The kids are encouraged to think of Duncan as their dog while they’re at school. And it’s clear Duncan has a special bond with them. He almost seems to think he’s one of them.

Credit Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Students are encouraged to read to Duncan, since he's a great listener and doesn't care if they make a mistake. Here, student Scarlett Keeder reads to him in the school library.

Scarlett Keeder is a sixth grader at Maltby. Scarlett says, “He doesn’t listen to kids. Only adults can talk to him. He won’t take a treat from a kid or anything like that.”

Fred Saber of Michigan-based Wing and Shot Dog Training, worked with Duncan for nearly a year to get him ready for the school.

When asked if he taught Duncan not to listen to kids, he says, “No, but they know, those children. He doesn’t respect them like he does the adults. It’s like they’re part of the pack, and they’re his age. They’re like his buddy.”

Saber says the adults at the school needed their own training to maintain Duncan’s impeccable behavior. He still consults with the school whenever there’s a concern.

“Maltby's been fantastic with calling me: ‘Fred, when the gym teacher takes him in the gym and all the kids are playing kickball and they’re doing all this and that, he’s struggling with that.’ I shot down there, we worked on it. I showed her how to fix it, how to correct it. And he gets it,” says Saber.

Saber is an experienced trainer of working and hunting dogs, but Brighton schools’ standards were high even for him.

“When we were supposed to drop him off a year ago September, she said, 'Fred is there any possibility that he could like lift his paw up on a child,' I said, 'Absolutely.' He was 11 months old. And she’s like, ‘Well if he does that he’s gone. The school won’t tolerate it. He’s outta here.’ I’m like, ‘Whoa! Well let me keep him a little bit longer. He’s too good of a dog to have something like that fail him, you know.”

Duncan learned to keep his paws to himself. And when the school bell rings, he goes home with one of the teachers, Michele Krayer.

"He is very much a puppy when he gets home," says Krayer. "He loves to run around outside. He knows as soon as we get in the neighborhood it is off the job time. We have another dog at home, a black lab, and Duncan plays with her all the time. He's just constantly on the move when he gets home."

Duncan with students
Credit Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Duncan with a fifth-grade class at Maltby Intermediate.

A therapy dog costs about $8,000. Brighton schools have already committed to three more dogs. Their goal is a dog for every building.

Karen Storey says the dogs create solid results in the classroom in terms of attendance, behavior, and reading achievement.

"We may have some children feeling lonely, shy, don’t want to come to school," says Storey. "Now they have a purpose to come to school. And just the fact that dogs have that special effect on people. There’s a lot of research behind that."

The kids wave goodbye to Duncan as they board the bus for camp, but it won’t be long before they see him again. Duncan will be joining them for the full three days.

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