Facility Service Dogs program paws-itively embraced by EMSB staff and students
As Dalkeith Elementary School Principal John Wright exits his office, accompanied by his pair of Golden Retriever service dogs Kira and, more recently, Jessie, screams reverberate throughout the school hallways. Some students try to approach the dog in an effort to pet them, while others simply gawk from the classroom windows.
“Nobody is ever happy to see me anymore,” jokes Mr. Wright, who fosters the two dogs. “They are only happy if I am with the dogs.”
Five year-old Kira has become a veritable “celebrity” at the school, with posters and artwork of the dog plastered throughout the school. Personalized videos featuring a dubbed Kira, have also been created for students celebrating important milestones, such as birthdays or graduations. She has even been included in lesson plans, with a Grade 6 math unit entirely dedicated to Kira the Service Dog.
Kira first arrived at the Anjou school in January of 2020, after undergoing over 3,000 hours of licensed training courtesy of the Asista Foundation. Students and staff have also undergone training since, on how best to approach a dog and how to ask permission to pet a dog.
Kira often accompanies childcare worker Anna Di Maulo on her daily check-ins with students. She aims to help students with their social interactions, reduce stress and anxiety in students, and helping the children in the recovery phase of a crisis. Some students choose Kira as a reward for good behavior and hard work in the classroom. Such students can spend 15 minutes with Kira or take her for a walk.
In addition, Kira builds students’ confidence in their reading through the schools’ Reading to Kira program.
“Kids that have difficulty reading out loud in class or don’t like reading out loud because they are afraid of their friends making fun of them, can come read a story to Kira,” said Mr. Wright. “Reading out loud is an important skill to have.”
Kira is now passing on her sensitization training to the next generation of service dogs with Jessie, who first came to the school this past May.
“If it were up to me, every school would have a facility service dog,” said Mr. Wright. “They project a calm energy for the students and bring smiles to their faces. We want the students to feel safe and by seeing Kira safe in the hallway, I would hope they feel safe as well. If Kira is not worried, why should they feel worried?”
Meanwhile, at St. Raphael…
St. Raphael School received their service dog, five year-old Journey, in February of 2020, after a lengthy application and training process.
“Journey is a very sturdy dog, yet super calm,” described Clementina Fraga, school secretary and Journey’s sitter. “He doesn’t get excited. The children love that because they get that connection and it makes them feel secure. Their eyes light up.”
“He gets attached to people who are peaceful, quiet and have a soft tone,” said Principal Joe Anne Désir. “He likes that kind of feeling and dynamic.”
Ms. Désir credits former principal Gail Callender and former regional director John Pevec with getting the program off the ground and ultimately approved by council.
Teachers utilize Journey in the classroom, with students invited to read to Journey. It has proven to be of particular benefit to St. Raphael students.
“Journey helps me with my work,” said Alex, a Grade 5 student. “He helps me focus. I really love animals.”
The school’s speech language pathologist, Pamela Goldsmith, also has come to use Journey as a tool when doing assessments on children.
“The children don’t feel it as an assessment session with the dog there,” said Ms. Fraga. “He has made Pamela’s job that much easier.”
Journey’s typical school day begins by greeting his handlers and students as they exit the school bus in the morning. He will often sit in the foyer with the children as they arrive, offering support to those in need.
“If he notices someone is in distress, I have seen him go sit next to that person,” said Ms. Fraga. “He will just sit there calmly. There is something about him that even adults who are afraid of dogs feel zen and calm around him.”
Ms. Fraga vividly recalls how Journey came to the rescue of the EMSB trauma team on one of his visits to hard-hit schools.
“Journey immediately connected with the people in need and, in some mysterious way, helped them to find comfort even if it was for a short while,” she said.
Much like with Kira at Dalkeith, Journey has become a household name around the school. The students celebrated Valentine’s Day with a photo booth and dressing up Journey. Students also created cards, name tags and drawings of Journey.
“When we have school pictures or graduation pictures, Journey also is included,” said Ms. Désir. “He’s really attached himself to the community at St. Raphael. It is part of our mission, to have a pet service dog.”
Service dogs also being integrated into adult education
Rosemount Technology Centre (RTC) welcomed three year-old Bouvier Bernois, Gustave, full-time to its facility in March. Gustave came to the school fully-trained, with staff also taking part in a six week online training program, before Gustave was eventually integrated into the school with students.
RTC Principal John Pevec, who was involved with the arrival of both Kira and Journey to Dalkeith and St Raphael, respectively, while interim regional director, says there has been an increased emphasis on mental health within the adult education & vocational services (AEVS). Psychologists and education counselors visit with students at the school once a week.
“We were finding, more and more with COVID, the counselors were bringing up cases of severe anxiety and depressions amongst our students,” said Mr. Pevec. “We knew the personnel was scarce and hard to find. Gustave’s arrival was really based on the needs of the students.”
He charged his office agent Susie Munno with becoming the dog’s primary handler.
“I am going to each classroom and integrating him with students,” said Ms. Munno. “Every day, I do a tour with Gustave with his vest on. We also have a wellness room and we are going to integrate Gustave with the psychologists and students there.”
Mr. Pevec qualifies Gustave as a “giant stress ball” who has helped students manage their anxiety during exam periods, among other areas. He has also noted a decrease in the amount of high-level crises amongst students since Gustave’s arrival.
“You certainly see the impact he has in the halls,” said Mr. Pevec. “Just having Gustave around has had a calming effect on the entire student body. Everyone looks forward to seeing him when they come to school each day. That, in and of itself, is a very positive thing.”
About the Asista Foundation
Founded in 2011 in Laval, Quebec, the Asista Foundation is a non-profit charitable organization driver to change lives by giving a second chance to dogs that are sometimes in precarious and difficult situations, such as in a shelter, and train them as service dogs to accompany people with mental health related conditions. Thanks to the precious network of its volunteers, donors, and partners, the Asista Foundation can continue to help people in need.
About the English Montreal School Board
With a youth and adult sector population of more than 35,000 students, the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) is the largest English public school board in Quebec. Established on July 1, 1998, when the province created new boards along linguistic lines, the EMSB network consists of 77 schools and centres. For more details, visit the EMSB website at www.emsb.qc.ca.