Dogs bring emotional support, life lessons to schools
YORK, Pa. (AP) — You’d never guess from the ear-to-ear smile stretched across Jacy’s face, but she claims she usually doesn’t like dogs.
Murray, though, is winning her over, one smooch at a time.
The scene unfolds during a recent afternoon at Northern High School in Dillsburg, York County, where the 3-year-old Labrador Retriever usually sits — well, lays in his doggie bed — alongside special education teacher Lauren Berry.
Murray is employed by the Northern York County School District, the highly trained pooch empowered to perform helpful tasks and, perhaps most importantly, provide a calming influence for the students in Berry’s special education class.
In addition to Murray at the high school, there are others scattered among the middle school and elementary schools: Hershey, Dewey, Aspen, Vale, Brodey and Aurora. All are Labrador Retrievers, though service dogs can come in various breeds.
Hershey was the original, the canine architect of this forward-thinking initiative. He’s into his eighth year in the school district, primarily working out of the middle school, though he’s nearing retirement.
“I never in a million years thought we would have a service dog in our classroom every day,” said Berry, a third-year teacher and Northern High School graduate who studied special education at Temple University and Elizabethtown College.
“But it’s been such a rewarding experience. I look forward every day (to) bringing (Murray) to school, because he not only puts a smile on my face, he puts a smile on all the kids’ faces.”
As Murray’s primary handler, Berry looks after the friendly Lab both at home and at school.
A red vest indicates Murray is on the job, and when that vest comes off, he can be a normal dog, Berry says, including playing with her two other dogs at home.
Through training from both a state prison inmate and at United Disabilities Services out of Lancaster, Murray and others like him learn over 100 commands. Then they use that knowledge to assist in classrooms like Berry’s, performing simple tasks like picking up markers and erasers to opening and closing doors, as well as the more emotional duty of providing a friendly face and pet-able back when a student is struggling.
Northern High School principal Steve Lehman recalls an incident several years ago, shortly after he started, when a student with special needs “completely shut down one day.”
No teacher or administrator could get through to him, but the student had come through the middle school and had a relationship with Hershey.
Cody Ebersole, the middle school’s emotional support teacher and Hershey’s handler, brought the familiar Lab to the high school. Almost immediately, the student settled and began communicating again.
That’s when Lehman, himself not a pet owner, knew Northern was onto something positive.
“I think there’s a sense of pride (that) our whole district sort of jumped on board, and others can look to us and ask us questions if they wanted to start a similar initiative,” he said.
It’s not cheap — some service dogs can cost up to $20,000, Berry said — and the training requires a lot of time and travel to and from Lancaster, but Northern administrators have taken a big-picture approach.
Lehman stresses that in addition to helping special needs (and other) students break down emotional barriers, the service dogs can and have inspired students to be better pet owners, to learn life skills in regard in service animals (ask before petting when the dog is wearing a vest!), and to possibly pursue careers working with animals.
Back in Berry’s classroom, as Jacy giggles and wipes Murray kisses from her face, the other students share why they love having Murray in their classroom.
Annie loves when Murray joins them in the community, as the students volunteer every Monday and Friday doing various tasks and eating in restaurants. (Murray gives the best tips when wait staff provides him his own bowl of water, Berry jokes.)
Venessa says he’s cute, and she loves when he plays with his squeaky toys, especially when the sounds hilariously interrupt a lesson.
Logan loves Murray’s playfulness, and Nathan is enamored with the dog’s ability to help when a student isn’t having his or her best day.
MaKenna, a Pittsburgh Penguins fan, calls the dog “Matt Murray” after her team’s star goaltender. And she says he’s pretty, even after Berry offers a playful correction that boys are usually described as handsome.
“Boys are pretty, too!” MaKenna responds.
And Murray seems to know this, proudly resting in his doggie bed, waiting for the next command and keeping a watchful eye on his beloved students.
Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com