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Lessons Learned from
Dogs in the Classroom

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Dogs in the classroom can be used to calm fears, relieve anxiety, and teach skills. Meet Morgan, Sadie, and Lucky, three dogs that are teaching students and their teachers lessons theyll carry all their lives. Included: Eighteen lessons humans can learn from dogs.

A high school student sat at a work table, feeling extremely upset. Sensing the students anxiety, Morgan, a 3-1/2-year-old certified therapy dog, wandered over to her and put his head on her lap. After a little while, she felt better and was able to focus on learning again.

Morgan is a cross between a golden retriever and a poodle -- a Goldendoodle. His silvery-black coat is more hypo-allergenic than the coats of most other dogs, which makes him a good choice to work with students at Palmyra-Macedon High School in Palmyra, New York. He is one of seven therapy dogs in this district of about 2,200 students.

When students show signs of stress or anger, Morgan joins them and helps them calm down.


Morgan gravitates toward kids who are loaners, and he really brightens their day.

Hes quite a dog, he really is, said Jim Blankenberg, Morgans owner. Morgan has the ability to sense stress, and he goes to the stressed-out student. Hes like a Teddy Bear students can hug.

TEACHING REAL-LIFE LESSONS

In Valparaiso, Indiana, Nancy Starewicz, a former school psychologist, has devised a program in which she uses her 3-year-old soft-coated Wheaten terrier, Lucky, to motivate children to behave well.

Starewicz first got the idea of using Lucky to teach children when she noticed how calm he remained as the two visited nursing homes. That motivated Starewicz to develop eight life lessons for students in grades K-2 and ten lessons for students in grades 3-6.

Meet Lucky. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Starewicz)
Starewicz begins Luckys visits with the younger students. She reads them a book she wrote showing Lucky as a black-and-brown puppy and now as a dog with a blond coat. Students learn from the book that Wheatens soft coats undergo noticeable changes as they mature. With encouragement from Starewicz, the students write stories about their own pets and illustrate them with drawings or photos.

Luckys first lesson for students in grades K-2 is I can wait. In this lesson, Starewicz places a treat on Luckys nose and talks to students about the importance of waiting. All the while, Lucky sits patiently, waiting to be given the treat. After a few minutes, Lucky receives the treat as her reward.

The other seven lessons for grades K-2 are:

  • I sit when asked.
  • I am friendly to everyone.
  • I listen with my ears, eyes, and heart.
  • I keep my eyes on my teacher.
  • I am quiet when my teacher is talking.
  • I eat good foods and drink water.
  • I exercise every day.

To illustrate the I exercise every day lesson, Starewicz explains to students that Lucky gets two walks a day and shows them photographs of Lucky playing in the snow.

The ten lessons for grades 3-6 are:

  • Talk less, listen more.
  • Sit less, exercise more.
  • Complain less, be thankful more.
  • Eat junk less, eat healthy more.
  • Be selfish less, think of others more.
  • Hurry less, be patient more.
  • Guess less, study more.
  • Growl less, smile more.
  • Worry less, trust more.
  • Judge less, accept more.

In teaching the important Complain less, be thankful more lesson, Starewicz talks with students about how Lucky is happy to have a loving family, fresh water, and to go for a walk or a car ride. I talk with them about being thankful for hugs, laughter, and the sun, Starewicz said. I ask them to work with their own gratitude list, to make a list of things theyre grateful for, like good health, their families, and their friends.


The ten Lucky lessons are great life skills for people of all ages.

Lucky doesnt care what youre wearing or what kind of house you live in, Starewicz tells students when teaching the Judge less, accept more lesson. Her discussions with students show that they get the message, she said.

A third-grade teacher commented on the program: The ten Lucky lessons are great life skills for people of all ages.

Kids -- and teachers -- stand to learn a lot of lessons from dogs. If theyre Lucky.

DOGS AIM TO HELP KIDS GRADUATE

At Palmyra-Macedon High, Morgan and his partner, a miniature-doodle named Sadie, play key roles in the districts AIM program, its alternative education program. Under Blankenbergs guidance, Morgan and Sadie accompany the AIM students, who take classes in math, English, and other subjects. The dogs are part of a plan to help the students meet high-school graduation requirements.

Morgan interacts with students outside the AIM program as well, said Blankenberg, a retired special education teacher who now works as a teaching assistant in the AIM program.

Blankenberg told Education World about a non-AIM program tenth-grader who suffered from anxiety last year. Morgan began to lie beside him for 80-minute class periods. When the student became anxious, Morgan put his head on the students lap. The student visibly relaxed and began to feel -- and learn -- much better.

Sometimes attention from Morgan rewards appropriate behavior in students. If students who have exhibited anger stay on task with no emotional outbursts in class, spending time with Morgan is their reward.

If a student is seeing the school psychologist for the first time and is nervous about it, Blankenberg has Morgan play with the student before the appointment until the student relaxes.

At the beginning and end of the school day Morgan and Blankenberg greet as many of the students as possible. Morgan gravitates toward kids who are loaners, said Blankenberg, and he really brightens their day.

Weve only begun to scratch the surface of how to use dogs to help people, Blankenberg said. Dogs are so intuitive and so intelligent and they have an incredible ability to give love.

Working with Morgan has made me a better person.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Dogs and School Children
Vin Fiordalis, a long-time administrator and mathematics teacher in Shaker Heights, Ohio, is an advocate of dogs in the classroom. In this remembrance he recounts the value of having a dog in his own classroom and pays tribute to dogs as "teachers' pets."

Classroom Management and the Teachers Pet
When a friendly, well-trained dog is introduced into an elementary school classroom, teaching conditions improve considerably. Students become less hyperactive and more attentive to their instructor. The dog becomes an effective classroom management tool.

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