Bringing Joy to the classroom
July 28, 2012 · Dave Morris
When the students return to Washington Elementary School in August, there will be a new top dog.
OK, two top dogs.
There's new principal Mike Hansen, and then there's also Joy, a Bernese Mountain Dog that is taking on full-time duties at the school.
Joy belongs to third grade teacher Gina Becthold, who received Joy in June after both completed training through the CARES, Inc., program in Kansas. Joy's training lasted many months, and Gina's was the week of June 17-23.
Joy will wear a vest that identifies her as a Professional Therapy Dog.
"The Bernese have the temperament for it," Becthold said. "When the vest's on, she knows it's all business."
Joy will have specific duties at Washington and will be in attendance every day.
"We have a clear picture," said Hansen, who comes to Washington after most recently being principal at the elementary in Riverside. "She will have a schedule like everyone else in the building. Teachers can sign up for her to be in their classrooms."
Joy will be available for a variety of tasks, including being with children in small groups and being a reading buddy.
"She provides unconditional, non-judgmental love," Becthold noted.
For children with trust issues with adults, a dog like Joy can be important, Hansen said.
Helping care for the dog can also be a positive motivator, they both said.
Hansen pointed out that the dog has a fitting name.
"Her name is so appropriate. She will bring joy to the staff and the kids," he said.
Joy's training requires that those around her adhere to a few basics.
Students in the building will be educated on appropriate behavior with Joy, and there will be building-wide expectations, Hansen said.
"There are things we as people need to learn about what to do and not to do," Hansen said.
"There are different expectations for when you see her in the hall than when she's in a classroom," Becthold added, noting that students who encounter the dog in the hall will be expected to do no more than a "pinky wave" to greet her.
"Her entire training is based on love, not treats," Hansen said. "Slipping her something is detrimental to her training."
Like Tanner, a therapy dog who made occasional visits to the school, Joy will be in class pictures and be considered as part of the staff.
Even on days when Becthold might be absent, Joy will be in attendance.
CARES Inc., based in Concordia, Kan., is an organization than trains assistance dogs of all kinds from the litter stage to the dogs' placement.
"You apply and they match you with a dog," Becthold said, adding the Joy came with her name and all of her initial training.
Becthold's joint training with Joy involved everything from using basic commands like "down" and "stay" to lectures on laws, legal rights, safety, nutrition and dog psychology.
"This training was more for the people than the dogs," she said.
Joy has been a special dog from birth. Her father is famous in dog circles, having won best in breed in 2008 at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club dog show.
For her graduation in June, her breeder drove 3-1/2 hours from Nebraska and has since stayed in touch with Becthold.
By the time Joy and Becthold were matched, the dog had received basic obedience training at a correctional facility, been placed by CARES with a foster family, and then returned to CARES for additional training.
Joy's graduating class of about 15 dogs included a variety of breeds and many who were being specifically trained as medical alert dogs, Becthold noted.
Becthold's children, Cooper, 10, and Jaegen, 8, took part in the training in Kansas, too, and her husband, Brad, is learning from the three of them.
She said her family's other dog, a German Shepherd named Mojo, has had to adjust to a few stricter rules since gaining Joy as a housemate.
Joy has a website that may be found by going to the school district's website and clicking "related links."
Funding for the dog came from a grant from the Mount Vernon School District Foundation. The dog and training ran about $1,500.