Emotional Support Dog Joins Resources for College High School Students | Education

The latest addition to the University High School staff can’t read, do math or hold a conversation, but he can help students in ways teachers and counselors can’t.

He can sit, stay, come, and most importantly, simply be a calming presence to a restless or troubled student, or a non-threatening friend to others.

Bear, a sweet, one-year-old sheep, began his tour this summer in college high school as the Waco Independent School District’s first emotional support animal. While his specific tasks and schedule are still being developed, the dog and his handler, English teacher and cheerleader sponsor Alyssa Grammer, are already becoming familiar sights in the gym and the halls of the university.

The unassuming bear has already won over the college cheerleading team as they train and prepare for the school year.

People also read…

  • Brice Cherry: Much of the reaction to Griner lacks nuance, understanding
  • Remains of Lions Park, Kiddieland in Waco being cleared
  • New Waco Riverwalk Design Seeks to Connect Riverfront Development, Foster Pavilion and Ranger Museum
  • Mike Copeland: Solar in Waco; New Starbucks; Baylor’s reliability; $1 million worth of bathrooms
  • Marlin and Gatesville prisons without full air conditioning pose a danger to inmates and staff
  • Local family raises awareness of common brain-eating amoeba years after daughter’s death
  • Baylor track reshuffles staff and adds new recruit
  • Suspects tried in 2 separate shootings this week in Waco
  • Waco’s new northbound I-35 lanes are fully open, southbound to follow soon
  • The name of the man who died in Saturday’s crash has been released
  • McLennan County Grand Jury Indictments: August 4, 2022
  • DPS: Fleeing Deputy, Hillsboro man dies in car crash near I-35 in Hewitt
  • Woodway man identified as victim of fatal crash
  • Three companies move into renovated building opposite Balcones Distilling
  • ALICO spends $1 million on elevator upgrades

“It’s their baby,” Grammer said. “They ultimately want him in their pyramid. They’ve really embraced him.

Bear and a second dog slated for the Greater Waco Advanced Health Care Academy are the latest additions to the district’s mental health resources. Waco ISD added a Certified Professional Counselor for Employee Support this year and introduced a new social-emotional program for students and staff.

The expanded resources are intended in part to address the emotional and psychological toll of COVID-19 on students, teachers and staff over the past two years, Superintendent Susan Kincannon said.

Emotional support animals add an often helpful element when working with shy, withdrawn, troubled or trauma-affected students, said Rachelle Warren, assistant superintendent of student services and support.

“We tend to react differently when there’s a dog or an animal in the room. They can have a real calming effect,” Warren said.

In the presence of a friendly, non-threatening dog, students sometimes open up and share what’s bothering them or they find the interaction easier, she says.

Bear’s owner and trainer is Buffalo-based Bella’s Buddies Inc., which has provided support dogs to schools, veterans hospitals and other organizations.

Kincannon, in fact, knew Bella’s Buddies and its K9U program from his years at Belton ISD when one of his dogs helped students recover from a crisis situation.

Amanda Davis, a former teacher, and her husband, Tom, run Bella’s Buddies, raising and training dogs, usually golden retrievers and goldendoodles, as support animals. They also train dog handlers and guardians.

They have worked or plan to work with Central Texas school districts in Belton, Gatesville, Bosqueville, Valley Mills and China Spring. Their dogs serve school programs for students with special needs, occupational therapy or speech therapy, or specific counseling needs.

Davis said training starts early with puppies raised in sensory-rich environments to sharpen their attention, then selected for additional instruction based on their temperament. At 12 weeks, Bear began social conditioning by being placed in an elementary school classroom. As he grew older, he showed the soothing and sociable qualities that make him suitable for emotional support work. Bear then learned the basic commands needed to work as an emotional support dog.

When Grammer volunteered to be a manager, she also volunteered for her own training. She learned the ins and outs of handling a dog: a basic vocabulary of commands, including heel, sit, stay, come and go; how to read Bear’s behavior and moods; how to get through crowds or deal with nearby people; feed; watering; and general care.

Part of a handler’s job is to set the rules for people who want to interact with the dog, including asking permission to pet, patting the dog’s shoulder or back rather than approaching the face and be gentle.

Grammer also had to consider the home front and his 3-year-old German Shepherd, Gigi. Fortunately, the two dogs turned out to be compatible and perhaps complementary.

“They get along really well. Bear gets up early, at 6 a.m. every morning and Gigi usually sleeps until noon,” Grammer said with a laugh.

Bear is also at the side of the English teacher during her trips to town. They walk around Cameron Park before the temperature gets too hot and sometimes go shopping.

“He loves going to Target,” she said.

Once classes begin, Bear will stay with Grammer in her class and accompany her to cheerleading practice and activities.

Senior varsity associate Beth Brabham, who also volunteered and trained as a handler, will take Bear when Grammer needs a break. Other teachers and students are being trained to work with Bear, and his duties and schedule will expand, including appearances at football games and pep rallies, Brabham said.

She said she imagined certain times would be set aside for the use of counselors and students, and time to rest in a quiet place would be an important part of Bear’s day.

Bear is expected to meet more students, teachers and parents at an open house on Thursday.