Pep rallies are something we all remember attending – the band playing the fight song, cheerleaders amping up the student body and athletes getting excited about taking on their rivals on the field or hardwood.
At Green Bank Elementary-Middle School December 13, the students experienced a different kind of rally – a pup rally.
The students and staff gathered in the gymnasium to welcome the school’s newest member – Kasha, the 13-month-old yellow Labrador Retriever – who is a therapy dog from the Friends with Paws program.
The program was founded by West Virginia Governor Jim Justice and First Lady Cathy Justice. To kickstart the program, 10 dogs were placed in various schools.
Kasha will provide emotional support to the students and staff at GBEMS with the help of her four handlers – principal Shana Alderman, Community in Schools coordinator Jonathan Paul, speech pathologist Jennifer Chestnut and science teacher Ellie Bell.
“We were supposed to get Jet back in the summer, but he ended up being too rambunctious for small children, so he was placed at a high school,” Paul explained. “He’s still a therapy dog, but he’s in high school where the bigger people are, and they can handle him.
“Kasha has the right temperament for elementary school,” he added.
The program places dogs in schools with a Community in School coordinator. The school usually has to apply to the program, but at Green Bank, it was a bit different.
“[The First Lady] has a soft spot in her heart for this school so she said, ‘when we start this therapy dog program, I want a dog in Green Bank Elementary-Middle,” Paul said.
Kasha went through special training to acclimatize her to working with children and her four handlers, who had to learn special commands for Kasha to assist students needing support.
“She will have a daily schedule that she will follow,” Paul said. “She will be spending time in the special ed rooms. She will help deescalate children that are out of control. She will comfort kids who are just overwhelmed. I get those kids in my office and having a therapy dog in here will just let them calm themselves down and get refocused and be able to get back to and be productive in the classroom.”
Kasha will only respond to the voices of the four handlers and was trained to remain calm when the students are being loud in the hallways.
“In one of the training sessions last week, we told the dog to sit and stay, then we had Mrs. [Karen] Murphy’s fifth grade classroom go up and down the hallway, screaming and banging, clapping and stomping and come back past her, getting close to her and she just stayed,” Paul said.
Kasha will also help the students with their literacy, by lending two fluffy ears during reading sessions.
“One of the things the dog loves is to be read to and a dog doesn’t say, ‘oh, you missed that word’ or ‘you pronounced that wrong,’ so the dog is a good ‘person’ to read to,” Paul said. “I see us using the dog even in the Title I room with kids reading to her.”
When the school learned it was getting a therapy dog, it seemed like kismet. The news came the same year that the school suffered the loss of student Braelynn Peteete. This year, GBEMS again suffered the loss of a student – Kaiden Stull – over Thanksgiving break.
Although Kasha had not arrived yet, the school did get to see first-hand what it would be like to have a therapy dog at the school. The McDowell County therapy dog, Coal, and one of his handlers came to GBEMS after Thanksgiving break to help the students and staff with the recent loss.
“It was amazing to see that dog in action,” Paul said. “He deescalated kids that were upset. He went to the sixth-grade classroom and targeted three kids in that classroom that needed it most. He sought them out and he could tell who needed to be cuddled the most.”
Seeing how effective Coal was with the students and staff, Paul said it got everyone even more excited to know Kasha would be on her way.
“We’ve had a rough couple years here at Green Bank,” he said. “I just think this is an added tool in our tool belt to help these kids not only be productive, but to heal. This dog is not only here for the children, but she’s also here for the adults.”
Kasha will live with Alderman and attend school every day it is in session. Dr. Stacy Tawney has offered her services to be Kasha’s veterinarian and help her grow into a happy and healthy member of the school.