It’s tough to have a bad day at Bell Top Elementary School. While that’s always been the case because of the caring teachers and supportive staff, there’s a new reason: a fluffy, four-legged one.
Auggie, Bell Top’s therapy dog puppy who joined the school in September, has brought even more positivity, kindness and joy to students. When he enters a classroom, the students can’t help whispering “Auggie!” in that excited tone specific to happy children. They put their hands down in their laps as school social worker Jaime Gibbs, who owns Auggie, drops the leash and lets Auggie walk around the classroom to sniff and say hello to the students. After a minute, Auggie finds a spot to lie down and Mrs. Gibbs teaches a lesson on subjects such as respect, fairness or bullying.
This is one of the many ways Auggie is utilized in school. He also helps Mrs. Gibbs with small group counseling sessions in her office. Students come in, pet Auggie for a minute and then begin the 30-minute session working through issues.
Reading specialist Carol Willis, who attends weekly training sessions with Mrs. Gibbs and Auggie in Guilderland, has students work on their reading and writing with Auggie. Students with certain anxieties about reading have no problems reading a book aloud to a dog. There is no judgment; Auggie just listens.
Auggie even responds to letters that students write him. Most of the letters talk about how much they love him, but a few have brought up more serious topics, ones that Mrs. Gibbs can address.
An excerpt from a recent letter said: “Dear Auggie, I feel kind of bad when my friend or any person yells at me. I don’t feel good because I feel very bad and heartbroken. Even at home that happens. I just don’t know how to stop it … Please Auggie, can you please help me? I really need your help.”
The letters also allow for students to show their compassion for others.
“Dear Auggie, My friend had a hamster and it died. I think if you came in or she got to have lunch with you it would make her feel a lot better.”
A pleasant byproduct of Auggie’s involvement at the school has been the good behavior fostered in students. All students follow specific rules when interacting with Auggie, and they are rewarded with Auggie time for their good work.
“Auggie has been a huge motivator for students,” said Principal Martin Mahar. “I have been very impressed by the students and the respect they have shown towards Auggie.”
Auggie has a full schedule each day. It usually begins with a visit to the Bell Top Running Club before school in the back field. Mrs. Gibbs brings him there to get some exercise and visit with students. Since Auggie is still a puppy, he usually takes a nap in the morning. Then he participates in counseling sessions, reading groups and visits classrooms throughout the day. And because he is a dog, he needs to go outside to use the bathroom periodically during Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Willis’ planning time or lunch.
Auggie also goes to after school events like the Ice Cream Social. In every way, he’s been integrated into the Bell Top community.
“It’s definitely a lot of work, which we knew it would be,” said Mrs. Willis, “but I don’t think we expected the impact he’s had on the whole building.”
And while part of his presence brings important smiles and laughter to school, he is no more necessary than when a student is crying or having a behavior issue. Auggie lies on the floor and lets the student pet the problems away.
“During this time, without any prompting from me, I have seen students naturally take deeper breaths and get control of their crying and escalated breathing,” Mrs. Gibbs said. “After a minute or two, the child is now in a calm state, and is ready to have a conversation with me about how they are feeling, what upset them, and how to move forward.”
Students and parents can learn more about Auggie and read his running diary at Bell Top’s Puppy with a Purpose website.