It was “Buster Time.” The dog’s entire body wiggled with excitement as a handful of students came to say “good morning” to their four-legged, 98-pound friend.
“I come every morning, even if I’m late and the bell has already rung,” said Myia Logan, a third-grade student at Russell Boulevard Elementary School. Logan is one of several students who checks in on Buster each day, says Bonnie Conley, the dog’s owner.
“Buster Time” is a reward system implemented for students at the school. By completing tasks or reaching specific goals, students earn time to spend with the 5-year-old lab owned by Conley, the school’s lead teacher in behavior and transition, who works in the special education classroom and acts as a resource for teachers with students who have behavioral challenges.
Buster is not only used as a reward for Conley’s students, though. Students throughout the school can earn the opportunity to spend time with the dog if their teacher uses Buster Time as an incentive. Students who earn time with Buster can visit the dog before or after school, or occasionally during the day when a teacher has arranged a visit for a student. During this time, typically five- or 15-minute sessions, students read poems to Buster or take him outside for a walk.
“He’s a great motivator for kids and adults,” said Jessica Deschu, a preschool teacher at Russell Boulevard.
Buster comes to school almost every day, only staying home once or twice a month. Before students arrive at school, Buster makes his morning rounds. Deschu’s classroom is one of several that Buster visits each day for a treat.
“I’ll say, ‘Go see who’s here,’ and he’ll go around the school and then wander back,” Conley said. “He knows which classes to go to and which teachers give him treats.”
This year was the first in Conley’s 19 years at the school that she has also been a resource districtwide. Because of the shift in Conley’s position, she and Buster visit other schools around the district. Although Conley still considers Russell Boulevard her home school, the job transition has yielded some changes for Buster.
“Some years, he would go into classes and students would read and write to him,” Conley said. “This year, more kids have had to come to him. He sticks pretty close to (my) room during the school day.”
Buster still visits classes when he is invited. First-graders invite him in during their lesson on animal science. Students ask Buster questions about his diet and the bump on his head, his “knowledge bump,” Conley says, which he acquired three years ago when muscles in his face atrophied. When Buster visits the first grade, Conley fields students’ questions with her dog at her side.
“He teaches students a lot about dogs,” Conley said.
Russell Boulevard counselor John Felts, who retired this year, agreed.
“I think Buster’s gentle ways allow some kids who are fearful of dogs to warm up slowly to the idea of a dog being nice and kind, instead of mean and scary,” Felts said. “Undoubtedly, that type of fear has been successfully lowered or remediated by a gradual and positive exposure to a once-feared source.”
Eight-year-old Logan admitted that she was shy of Buster at first, but she quickly warmed up to him.
“I got used to him smelling me,” Logan said. “I thought he would bite me, but then I found out he just likes to sniff.”
Now, when Logan shies away from Buster, it’s usually because he’s coming for her ears. “He likes to lick their ears,” Conley said. “He’s an ear man.”
Buster’s personality affects teachers as well, Conley said.
“Teachers say he’s sometimes even calming for them,” she said. “There’s a lot out there about how dogs are good therapy for both kids and adults.”
Lisa Fortner, who will replace Felts as school counselor next year, said that she plans to take Buster with her into classrooms that she visits.
“He helps me develop rapport with the kids,” Fortner said. “He was a fixture at Russell long before I was there. He is the headliner, and I am just kind of coming in on the tail of it, no pun intended.”
Conley said she is glad Buster will be able to spend time with more students in the school after a year of staying mostly in her classroom at Russell Boulevard.
“He and I both miss going to the regular classes, so next year, I’m glad that will happen again,” Conley said. Fortner said students will also be happy to see Buster around school more. His mug shot in the school yearbook is often not enough to satisfy students’ desire to see their furry friend.
“He’s quite a sought-after celebrity,” Fortner said.