LA CROSSE, Wis. - North Woods International School in La Crosse welcomed a full-time service dog at the beginning of the school year.
Unlike therapy dogs, which can be any dog that passes the therapy dog certification class, service dogs are generally bred and hand-picked to work with someone in need of assistance.
But the service dog at North Woods is a bit unusual. She doesn't work with just one person. The dog has been trained to work with an entire classroom of students.
“Almost every student in our school knows Sammie,” North Woods International School Principal Sandy Brauer said.
“Hi Sammie! Hi Sammie!" is what we hear down the hallway,” North Woods International School Special Education Teacher Heather Stern said.
The new four-legged friend at North Woods is making quite an impact on some students. Fifth-grader Jackson Klatte now has an easier time concentrating in the classroom.
“It helps me think better and focus better,” Klatte said.
Jackson is one of several students with complex behaviors that benefit from Sammie.
“She is here to support the kids emotionally when they need that,” Stern said.
“I like to pet her, which calms me down,” Klatte said.
Sammie was trained as a school service dog by an organization called Retrieving Freedom, and now works with Stern's students.
There are times where I say she needs to be in class with certain students all day.
And when that happens, Sammie simply stays next to the student during class.
“They pretty much touch her … the whole time, but they can work and they can stay in class and they get work done,” Stern said.
Sammie is there to help calm emotions that otherwise would become overwhelming.
“One of the students, if she (Sammie) didn't go with, would probably be in my room a couple of times just regrouping, because he wouldn't be ready for learning,” said Stern.
Sammie was trained to help defuse powerful emotions. This bench, which is called a "place board," is a common spot for Sammie to hang out with students.
“I can tell her to place and snuggle,” Stern said. “So she can snuggle with the students.”
“So if a child is having strong feelings or is in crisis, the dog will actually nuzzle up and help that child,” Brauer said, “and it's amazing how for most children that helps.”
And there are other times Sammie goes to work without even being told.
“I don't know how to put it in words,” Stern said. “She just knows. She just knows when she needs to go up to certain kids and just sit next to them. There's not a command for that. She just does it.”
Jackson says it's working.
“It helps me not to freak out as much,” Klatte said.
“I don't know how she does it,” Stern said. “But her just being there with him, he can calm down so much faster than he's ever calmed down before.”
“As schools look for ways to reach children with emotional and behavioral needs, this might be an avenue that other schools want to pursue,” Brauer said.
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