Visitors to Kyrene de la Esperanza Elementary are surprised to see a blonde Labrador/Golden Retriever dog walking down the hallways, attended by Principal Cheryl Greene and greeted by name by students.
“Hey, Bolt!” say passersby, invariably with a big smile.
That pleases Greene, and – by the wag of the 2-year-old dog – Bolt as well.
In the first project of its kind in the Kyrene School District, there is a dog that walks the halls – not just any dog, but one from Canine Companions for Independence that is bred, raised and trained as a highly skilled assistance dog.
His appearance on campus wasn’t an impulsive decision. It began, according to Greene, a year ago when parent Matt Drowne brought his CCI dog Fable on campus while visiting his two children, Jack and Sydney, during the annual Curriculum Night. Drowne is headmaster at Gateway Academy.
“In talking to Matt, Mrs. Moeur and I thought a ‘facility dog’ would be a great way to motivate our students, both academically and behaviorally, especially with our special needs students,” said Greene.
“We have three fulltime special education teachers and an extended resource room for children with emotional disabilities,” she added.
“We also have an integrated preschool program for typical students and students with special needs. We thought that a Facility Dog can reach students in a unique and special way – helping children with emotional, social, and behavioral challenges. Facility Dogs by their mere presence help children stay on difficult tasks and increases their motivation to achieve.”
Wanting a Canine Companion for Independence (CCI) dog and getting one are far different matters, said Greene, who holds a bachelor’s of science in psychology, master’s in both counseling and organizational management, and a doctorate in educational administration.
“It’s a pretty rigorous process to apply. We had an all-day interview at CCI’s Southwest Regional Training Center in Oceanside (California) and two weeks later, we were informed that we were on the wait list to attend team training, and hopefully get matched with a dog,” she said. “We were on the waiting list for five months; the wait list can be up to two and a half years.”
Once approved, Greene and Moeur headed to Oceanside for a two-week team training program – at their own expense.
“The dogs were already trained; they were really training us,” laughed Greene. “We learned how to take what they had learned and how to integrate them into our setting.”
Last month, the duo’s graduation ceremony was held, and Moeur and Greene drove back to Ahwatukee with Bolt – a dog Greene said she knew she wanted after two days of working with various canines.
“He’s a very happy dog, his tail tells it all,” she said.
Accepting a CCI dog is the start of a lifelong relationship.
““CCI wants a long-term commitment. As the primary facilitator, Bolt lives with me, and is sometimes with me during the day, and sometimes with Janet,” said Greene.
Greene said her husband Michael was on board with the dog joining their home. Their oldest son Josh is currently doing a 13-month fellowship program in Rwanda, and their daughter Mikayla is a senior at the University of Arizona.
With Bolt a part of the school for a little more than a month, Greene said she’s seen the many advantages the dog has brought to her campus.
Bolt is often used as an incentive for students as a reward they can earn, for instance if they are on a positive behavior support plan she said.
”If the students meet their goal, they can come and visit Bolt,” said Greene, the dog’s primary facilitator. “Also, if students are upset and aren’t ready to talk to an adult, they are usually willing to talk to Bolt. Just the presence of Bolt in the special education classroom helps students stay on tasks that are difficult.”
She related that that after a boy suffered “a meltdown” and wouldn’t leave the room, she and Bolt came and Greene invited the boy to walk with them down the hall. He went.
Following one presentation, Bolt and Greene visited an integrated preschool program that serves typical and special needs students together.
“Many of the students in our preschool program have developmental delays in speech. Before the students were allowed to pet him one at a time, the teacher had them practice saying his name, and responding in sentences,” said Greene. “One goal for Bolt is to have him visit our morning and afternoon preschool programs regularly as an incentive for the students to develop their language skills.”
Green said having Bolt on campus wouldn’t have been possible without the full support of the Kyrene School District.
Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely said his presence on campus underscores various studies proving their worth.
“Research has demonstrated that therapy dogs properly managed in the school setting can not only make a measurable difference in terms of gaining various skills such as reading enhancement, but also in contributing critically to emotional and relational development,” she said. “ Kyrene School District is thrilled to have Bolt join the Esperanza Elementary campus.”
Canine Companions for Independence was founded in 1975 and has trained and placed more than 5,000 assistance dogs with program graduates, including more than 1,500 with children and 140 with military veterans.
The dogs are trained in one of six national training centers, and are taught more than 40 commands designed to assist people or motive and inspire clients with special needs. The estimated cost of a highly-trained Canine Companion facility dog like Bolt, with follow-up support, is $50,000.
CCI Facility dogs are provided at no cost.
Bolt made a special appearance at the Kyrene Governing Board meeting last week, prompting board member Michelle Fahy to tell Greene: “It’s so exciting to see you bringing that opportunity to all students at Esperanza. I hope something like this will grow to other schools.”