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Therapeutic service dog helps soothe Missouri preschool students

Monday, July 5, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

WENTZVILLE — It's hard work trying to be a good dog all the time.

And when it comes to succeeding in preschool, it's equally hard to be a well-behaved little boy or girl for hours at a stretch.

Nobody understands these two things better than Waco, a floppy-eared, doe-eyed chocolate Labrador Retriever, whose destiny has nothing to do with typical doggie pursuits, such as fetch or chewing up errant socks.

Instead, his role is to be the best-behaved, most-gentle and emotionally docile student in a classroom charged with childhood energy.

As far as his adult handlers can tell, Waco appears to be the first fully trained therapeutic service dog in the country, working to soothe an entire classroom of preschoolers every school day.

At a time when many public educators are wary — sometimes to the point of costly and emotional lawsuits — about letting certain types of support dogs into their classrooms, Waco's handlers said he is the most problem-free, hard-working example of what a properly trained pooch can do to enhance the performance of emotionally and academically challenged students.

He's been so successful with the 3- to 5-year-olds at the Youth In Need Head Start preschool in Wentzville, staffers are planning to have his presence studied by the University of Missouri to formally measure the link between therapeutic support dogs and early academic success.

In just two months with Waco at the preschool, staff and parents have seen profound differences.

"The whole feeling of the room is calmer," teacher Christy Oakes said. "The kids are calmer. The teachers are calmer. He is absolutely accepted in the classroom."

Since May, the 2-year-old pooch has been one of the first to arrive at the preschool with his handler, Ann Young, a community outreach coordinator with Youth In Need. Like his 20 other classmates, Waco has his own cubby — a wicker basket into which every morning, he opens his gummy jaws and gently deposits his daily supplies: a rope and a training vest.

After a pat or two from his teachers, he is put to work, often with a staffer's quick command or a gentle tug at his short leather leash.

His job requirements vary but always start with him greeting a parade of good morning hugs and pats from the children and their parents. He returns the hellos with gentle licks and sniffs — but never a jump, a bark or even a thumping tail.

With the exception of mealtimes and the playground, he participates in all classroom activities. At tooth-brushing time, Waco stands obediently by the children to get his teeth brushed too, sometimes by his fellow students.

During free-play, amid the clatter of dancing, blocks and sticky paintbrushes, he calmly sits on a blue mat under the small sign, "Waco's spot," where he essentially becomes a silky beanbag for children who want to relax and get an instant dose of love an affection.

Often at nap time, he is set beside an anxious child. With the simple command, "visit," he will lay his head on the child's chest and become a warm, breathing partner to guide the child into sleep.

At cleanup time, Waco pitches in, demonstrating it is best to help pick up Little People and other toys on the floor — even though he wasn't the one who made the mess.

And in the most show-stopping part of the day, it is Waco who tugs a special candy-striped rope to open the door between the classroom and the playground outside.

But these are just the busy parts of a job that has a higher purpose. Above all else, Waco is charged with being a calm, emphatic and steadfast best friend for little boys and girls who generally haven't had a lot of stability and comfort — or even safety — in their lives.

Typical of many Head Start programs, most of the students in Waco's class come from low-income families. Some are skirting homelessness. Others struggle to put food on the table. Domestic violence lurks in some of the homes, and some of the children are coping with an incarcerated parent.

"Waco is absolutely a social-emotional support for these children," Young said. "If a child has a bad night, if things aren't going well in the morning, he is just there to support them, and he does it by being there every day."

Research suggests most children living in poverty suffer from stress that can hinder their success in school. Staffers at Youth In Need said before Waco, the children at the preschool were clearly anxious and had more emotional meltdowns. Some couldn't stay still through story time and resisted nap time. Saying goodbye to a parent was particularly hard.

Already active with Support Dogs Inc. of St. Louis, Young said she saw these behaviors and was sure a therapeutic dog could help.

Board members with Youth In Need, based in St. Charles, were at first skeptical. There were obvious questions: Was it fair to add another complication to an already challenging classroom? What about allergies? Was it safe?

But when Bill Dahlkamp, executive director of Support Dogs Inc., brought another therapeutic service dog to the board to demonstrate its abilities, he said members were so impressed with his mellowness and overall aura of a loyal dog, they were hooked.

"Their temperament has to be outstanding — stellar," Dahlkamp said. "All of our service dogs are taught to be confident, but to be therapy dogs, they have to be even more confident than the norm."

Young said Waco's transition into the classroom was like a well-heeled walk in the park. Initial concerns by parents and some teachers melted away once they looked into Waco's droopy brown-gold eyes.

Waco had them at hello, parent Beth Allen said.

Allen, who has two children in Waco's classroom, said the dog eased them through a difficult separation between her and their father.

"I think he has brought the class a little more together," she said. "Instead of having their own friends, they have a common friend."

By the end of the school day, Young said Waco is pretty tired. It's hard work holding back the puppy inside. So when he gets home from work, he rests just like anyone else — well almost.

"He races around the backyard really, really fast like a puppy," she said.


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