Therapy dog is a teacher’s aide
Lynn Kovacich, a teacher at Barker High School, has recruited a unique helper to work with her students.
Adams is a 3-year-old golden retriever who works as a therapy dog in the Central Valley District school’s comprehensive medical intervention class. There are seven students, all high school age with developmental disabilities. When Kovacich started with the district four years ago, she approached the school board for permission to find a therapy dog. She contacted Summit Assistance Dogs, a nonprofit organization that trains and matches dogs to an appropriate human partner.
Adams is a working dog. Every morning, Kovacich puts a vest labeled “Therapy Dog” on him and he is ready for work.
“The kids in the school absolutely love him,” Kovacich said. Adams helps the students work on their fine motor skills. They work on brushing him and giving him treats.
“For our kids, holding a brush is a big deal,” said Bruce Gunn, a para-professional who works in the classroom with the students. “They want to be involved with the dog.”
The students arrive every day around 7:30 a.m. when they have breakfast. Adams then accompanies the students to their physical education class, where they work on throwing balls and other activities designed to work on fine motor skills.
Dylan Long, one of the students, works with Adams in the school hallways. Walking the dog helps motivate Long to push his own wheelchair.
Kovacich said it is a treat for her students to take Adams for a walk. She has attached two leashes to his collar, one for the student and one for a teacher.
“He’s a calming force,” Kovacich said. “He loves all the attention and unifies all the kids in the school.”
He is a calm dog when he’s working. Gunn said if a student accidently pulls his fur, he doesn’t yip or flinch. If a student has a sudden outburst, he doesn’t leave the student’s side. He often approaches a student and places his front paws in their lap so they can pet him and give him treats, which Kovacich keeps in her pockets.
After his school day, Kovacich takes him home where she has another golden retriever, Rocket.
“When he has this vest on, he knows he’s working,” Kovacich said. “He gets his vest off, oh, he becomes a dog.”
Barker is a unique school in the district. Along with the comprehensive medical intervention class, it is the district’s alternative school. There are students who attend classes all day, some who check in once a week to get their assignments and there are the students in Kovacich’s class.
When Adams first came to the school in fall 2009, his trainer brought him to a schoolwide assembly. He worked the crowd, approaching every student in the room. Gunn said he asked the trainer if he was trained to do that.
“No, that’s just his personality,” the trainer told him.
There is also a student who has an enormous fear of dogs. Adams calming presence has even turned that student into a fan.
Although Adams works with the students of the district, it is Kovacich who pays for his care and food. She said she hasn’t done any formal assessments of the student’s progress with Adams, but anecdotally, she tells many stories of the love the students have for him and how he helps.
Marandalyne Zumwalt is one of the students who loves having Adams in her class. Her teachers say she will take him for walks until he is too tired to walk any farther. When he approaches her, her face lights up and she claps while he puts his paws in her lap and rests his head on her shoulders.
Of all the many jobs Adams has at Barker, it’s his love that is the ultimate therapy.