It's a whole new definition of lab partner. Students and teachers at Scotts Ridge Middle School in Ridgefield, Conn. are taking a unique approach to learning, one that lets students raise guide dog puppies for non-profit organization Guiding Eyes for the Blind, in addition to their normal curriculum.
"They've helped all the kids and teachers be happy and calm," says Sammy Mandelker, a seventh grader at Scotts Ridge. "They just add joy to the school."
What does a dog's school day look like?
Students are greeted each morning by the dogs at the main entrance of the school. The pups then travel to different classrooms throughout the school building. There are two dogs in the sixth grade classes each day, in addition to two dogs who remain in the office for any student in need of comfort.
In the course of a school day, dogs may travel to elective classrooms or spend time in the guidance offices. The dogs spend time everywhere — except cooking classes, as students and teachers report they're just a little too food motivated.
"Several teachers and staff members work together to manage the schedule for the dogs and which kids have earned or need the dogs each day," explains Autumn Hoey, a sixth grade teacher at Scotts Ridge. "The dogs are used for many different reasons: a shy child, a nervous child, a child that is having a bad day. They can be earned for good behavior as well for any student."
How did future guide dogs end up at a school?
Frank Oakes, a sixth grade science teacher, says the program was introduced at the school by assistant principal Lisa Frese about six years ago ... and they've never looked back. "[The program was introduced] as an additional tool for students that are struggling for many reasons," Oakes tells Yahoo Life. "We have a great school culture with many successful programs in place, but this has been the most successful SEL (social and emotional learning) strategy for sure."
When the dogs, which are active or retired brood dogs for Guiding Eyes, are not at school, they are permanently housed by participating staff members. But, even though the program is widely-loved at the school today, when it was first coming to fruition, Oakes struggled with the concept.
"As a former Navy Seal and non-dog owner, I did not feel it was appropriate to have dogs in school," Oakes admits. "Presently, I have a dog in my class all day, I eat (and even share) my lunch with the dogs and I come to school over the summer to see them because I miss them so much."
Dogs helping students
Patricia Dowd, a sixth grade social studies teacher shares that adding dogs to the classrooms has helped students and teachers alike. "Every year I have some shy or really recalcitrant students that have a hard time leaving home or staying in class, and the dogs have completely changed that," Dowd says. "I often give them to the students that are having a difficult time making friends at recess and it always works. Any time the students are presenting in class and feel nervous, we put the dogs ... right in front of the students and have them focus on presenting to the dogs."
Matteo Ktorides, a seventh grader, says spending time with one of the pups, Quinn, has been wonderful for him academically and emotionally. "I read with the dogs every day," Matteo says. "They listen, they are my pillow and they snuggle. I know that I can read and not worry that they are going to lose patience with me if I mess up."
Dowd says the dogs also help students learn how to be better, more responsible young citizens.
"It teaches responsibility," she says. "Many of the students have never walked a dog on a leash, picked up poop or given a dog a treat. We teach them all of that."
How to be a "puppy raiser"
For those without pups in their place of education or work, Guiding Eyes is currently in need of "puppy raisers" around the country who are willing to take the pups into their homes to teach them basic obedience, household manners and socialization. Puppy raisers return the dogs to Guiding Eyes training staff at around 16 to 18 months of age, then the dogs are trained to be guide dogs.
This month, the organization's annual Wag-A-Thon fundraiser challenges participants and their pups to log up to 26.2 cumulative miles from Sept. 1 through Sept. 30 in celebration of National Guide Dog Month.
While Oakes was a skeptic about having the pups at Scotts Ridge at the start, he's now become one of the largest supporters of the program. "They help the teachers with stress in the same way [they do the students.]," he says. "Often, they are so intuitive and they know if you need them somehow and will just follow you and sit at your feet."
"It is the best thing we ever did for teachers and students," he adds.
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