Emotional support dog joins University High student resources | Education

The latest 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 importantly, simply be, a calming presence for an agitated or troubled student, or a nonthreatening friend for others.

Bear, a mellow 1-year-old sheepadoodle, has started his rounds this summer at University High School as 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 are becoming 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 school year.

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“He’s their baby,” Grammer said. “They eventually want him to be 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 latest addition to the district’s mental health resources. Waco ISD has added a licensed professional counselor for employee support this year and is introducing new social emotional curriculum for students and staff.

The expanded resources are intended in part to address the emotional and psychological toll of COVID-19 on students, teachers and staff over the last two years, Superintendent Susan Kincannon said.

Emotional support animals add an often helpful component when working with students who are shy, withdrawn, troubled or dealing with trauma, said Rachelle Warren, assistant superintendent for student services and support.

“We tend to respond differently when there’s a dog or an animal in the room. They can have a real calming effect,” Warren said.

In 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 schools, veterans hospitals and other organizations.

Kincannon, in fact, knew Bella’s Buddies and its K9U program from her years in Belton ISD when one of its dogs helped students recover from a crisis situation.

Amanda Davis, a former classroom teacher, and her husband, Tom, run Bella’s Buddies, raising and training dogs, usually golden retrievers and goldendoodles, as support animals. They also train the dogs’ handlers and caretakers.

They have 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 selected for further instruction according to 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 basic commands needed to 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; how to read Bear’s behavior and moods; how to walk through crowds or handle with people nearby; feeding; washing; and general care.

Part of a handler’s job is setting the rules for the people who want to interact with the dog, including asking permission to pet, petting on the dog’s shoulder or back rather than approaching from the face, and being gentle.

Grammer also had to consider the home front and her 3-year-old German shepherd, Gigi. Luckily, the two dogs proved compatible and maybe complementary.

“They get along great. Bear gets up early, at 6 am every morning and Gigi usually sleeps until noon,” Grammer said with a laugh.

Bear also is at the side of the English teacher on her trips in town. They take walks in Cameron Park before the temperature gets too high and sometimes go shopping.

“He loves to go to Target,” she said.

Once classes start, Bear will stay 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 will be set aside for use by counselors and students, and a rest time in a quiet location will be an important part of Bear’s day.

Bear is expected to meet more students, teachers and parents during a University High open house Thursday.

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