What the Dog Said

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Two years ago, I crossed paths with Leah Pells, a Counsellor in School District 43 and her PADS dog, Smokey.  We were sitting in a district meeting and I spent some time talking to her about how Smokey was being used as a service dog at her school.  Smokey is a CAI (Canine Assisted Intervention) Dog.  In essence, he is a therapy dog, used to help bring calmness to an anxious student, a smile to a child having a difficult day, or the softening needed for a child to open up and share their story.  I remember spending some time sitting beside Smokey, enjoying this calm temperament and unconditional acceptance of me being in his space.  I went home that night, reflecting on some of the emotional challenges our community had been going through with some tragic events that were creating a lingering energy making each day feel like a cloud hovering over top of us.  I thought about how a CAI dog would assist our school and made the decision to apply for one.

The process for acquiring a PADS dog is a lengthy one.  In my circumstance, it was 2 years in the waiting, consisting of an interview and visits with various dogs to our school and my home.  PADS is an incredible organization that places tremendous energy, resources, and pride in training their dogs to be excellent ambassadors and in ensuring that they get paired with the most suitable recipient.  This past November, four PADS dogs visited Riverside.  We walked the halls and adjoining park, visited classrooms, and watched them interact with staff and students.  While I spent time with each of the dogs, PADS trainers observed the dogs’ behaviours and mine to determine which dog might be the best fit for me and the school.  They then visited my home and family, repeating the process of walking through our neighbourhood and observing our behaviours.  We eventually agreed that one of the dogs, a lovely black lab named Liege, would be the best partner and companion for me, my family, and Riverside.

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Liege is a gentle, calm, 3 year old who offers a playful side to those who respond accordingly.  He handles with ease, the busy hallways of a school, noisiness of a gym, and energy of a secondary school.  What I’ve learned, is that he not only seems to be popular with students, but he is just as popular with staff.  There have been several occasions of staff walking into my office and laying down on the floor to cuddle up with Liege.  He is affectionate, tolerant, loving, and gentle.  He is a welcome relief for many of us during the hectic and stressful moments that occur in a school day.

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I have been asked on several occasions what it is like to have a dog at work with me.  The truth is that while my day looks a little different than it used to, I have managed to fit Liege into my role.  He joins me in meetings, settles students when I need to have difficult conversations with them, and helps me get more connected.  He reminds me why I’m here by making students and staff the priority.  He forces me to step out of my office much more and be around the people that I am supposed to be serving.  Liege and I spend some time each day working on his training, just to ensure that he is keeping up with his fourty or so commands.  He can open and close doors, turn lights on/off, fetch, tug, and crawl.  He is able to follow chain commands, such as “Liege, Look, Get It, Hold, Bring it Here, Give.”  He enjoys learning new behaviours and is enthusiastic about following his command structure.  Proactively, we use Liege to bring a level of calmness to the building.  Giving students a chance to just say hello and give a welcome pet, or receive a “kiss” from Liege seems to bring out plenty of compassion from students.  We visit classes when students have tests to write to help lower their anxiety, or join  students have more difficulty handling changes to routines, or transitioning to a new situation, such as in Student Services.  We have taken part in psychology classes when students were learning about mindfulness or needed Liege to help decompress after a lesson that was very intense.  We are using Liege to work with students who are afraid of dogs, support students in counselling who are experiencing personal or socio-emotional issues, and have found him effective when working with students who have been reluctant to comply with a staff member’s request.

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Liege has been a welcome member of our support team here at Riverside and a terrific companion at home.  We are incredibly fortunate to have the support of PADS and a district who allows us to utilize these service dogs to assist us in our classrooms and schools.  While it may not be easy knowing exactly what Liege has to say about his new job, he has made quite the impression on staff and students with his gentle, loving nature.

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About aciolfitto

Principal
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