The beginning of the school year always means students have to get to know new teachers and staff have lots of new faces to place. Liberty Middle School will be no exception when classes get underway on Aug. 29, but one new face will immediately stand out.
Zee is a Labrador Retriever certified professional therapy dog. She'll hang out in sixth grade reading teacher Linda Stelzer's room, snoozing on a big pet bed until she's called on to perform a particular task.
"A dog in this school might resolve some issues with kids in modeling good behavior," Stelzer said.
She is especially concerned with bullying, and although LMS staff work very hard to address every incident, she thinks an animal can help by modeling respect, relieving stress and giving unconditional love. During the summer Jump Start session, she has already seen some benefits of having Zee in the classroom.
Beth Novotny retired last May as a vocal music teacher at Skyline Schools. Flynn, a therapy dog at Skyline for the last five years, retired with her. She said the dog was especially helpful in welcoming new students and being a good role model.
"I always stressed that Flynn was happier when we were under control and used good manners," she said. "It boils down to respect. The kid saw me respecting Flynn and his needs and him respecting me and my commands."
Novotny believes that Zee will be effective as another tool in reducing bullying incidents at LMS.
Skyline will have a new therapy dog partnering with fifth and sixth grade teacher Kris McPherson.
Local schools work with CARES, Inc., at Concordia. The name is an acronym for canine assistance, rehabilitation, education and services. Handlers purchase their dogs and complete a week of extensive training, which started, Stelzer said, by establishing herself as the pack leader.
During that week, she saw some "phenomenal things." One dog was in training with a person who had seizures. When a seizure occurred, the dog was immediately in the person's lap, calming him down. Another dog warned its diabetic owner when blood sugar was becoming dangerously low. Several dogs were going into schools and one would work with a crisis center counselor. Some dogs assist children with Downs Syndrome and women with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In a school setting, therapy dogs can serve as motivators — "I'm doing a job and you need to focus on what you should be doing," Stelzer commented. They can relieve stress, ease depression, provide physical and emotional support and teach responsibility.
"These are all things we do as teachers," Stelzer said. "This is just another way of doing it. There's something about petting a dog."
If a student doesn't want to pet the dog, that's fine too. Zee will stay on her bed until she is instructed to go to a student. Of course, if students say they don't want to be ministered to by the dog, they can change their minds.
There are some rules for interacting with Zee. Anyone who wants to pet her must get permission from Stelzer. When Stelzer leaves the classroom, Zee will go along. The two are on the way to completing a task, and Zee is not to be petted or called out to. Waving is fine, however.
Zee is not to receive human food or treats. Stelzer has already tested this: one day during Jump Start, a fellow teacher brought a plate of warm cookies. Stelzer commanded the dog to get down and stay, then held the plate in front of her nose and said, "leave it." Zee obeyed.
The Board of Education approved having a therapy dog in the school and Kansas statutes allow assistance dogs in public places.