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Pedagogy with Pups

Wednesday, November 30, 2016  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

Schools receive all sorts of requests from parents on behalf of students. Whether they need to accommodate a child’s injury or set up tutoring, school leaders try to support their students in every possible way. In recent years, several SAIS heads have been asked to allow service dogs on campus to assist students’ different needs. While honoring the request required schools to address a few logistics, they also found that the pooches served a great purpose on campus.

Approximately 2.8 million school-aged children (and 53 million adults) in the U.S. have a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control. Service dogs assist people to live more “normal” lives. They can walk with those who are blind or have low vision, or who are deaf or hard of hearing. They can help people who have epilepsy, diabetes, allergies, autism, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

So when Virginia Satisky, upper and middle school head at Fayetteville Academy in Fayetteville, NC, received an email from a student’s mother about allowing him to bring a service dog to school, her answer was “Absolutely.”

Fayetteville student Gage Fitzgerald* was diagnosed with epilepsy in 9th grade. After a few years of trying to manage his condition, Gage experienced several intense seizures and an episode of such disorientation that he unconsciously wandered away from home. After that incident, the family decided to search for a service dog. A seizure response dog can alert others when his “person” is having a seizure. Anecdotal research also suggests that, after a certain amount of time together, the dogs can smell or detect a chemical change in their person when a seizure is oncoming and can alert them or others.

The Fitzgeralds connected with Domesti-PUPS based in Lincoln, NE, which specializes in training service dogs for children. While waiting for his certified dog, Gage was given an agency puppy for a year for preliminary training. He had to learn how to manage a dog in a school setting and the dog needed to be socialized – a little canine congeniality lesson on campus.

“There was not a minute of hesitation about giving Gage any assistance,” Satisky said. After clearing the request with the head of school, she began meeting with students and faculty about what to do and not to do around the dog. She also inquired about any students with pet allergies.

“It was a wonderful experience for us as a school,” Satisky said. “It made our students more aware of service dogs and how they can be helpful, and made them more understanding of people who may have a disability.”

Students and faculty fully supported Gage and his dog Sadie, even helping to raise $5,000 toward his permanent service dog. “She just became one of them,” said Michelle Fitzgerald, Gage’s mother. “The school was so receptive and kind. It could not have been a better experience with how they supported him. They just embraced the whole process.”

Michelle heard horror stories from other parents of children with disabilities about getting their dogs into schools. Although the right to use a service animal is provided by law by the Americans with Disabilities Act, at least one parent Michelle met had to get a court order for their public school to allow her child’s service dog on campus.

Sadie returned to Nebraska to complete her training with select inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary. As part of routine testing, the findings revealed that her hips did not score well and she was disqualified from the program. The Fitzgeralds were given the option to adopt her and flew her back to Fayetteville just in time to surprise Gage and his friends at their graduation ceremony this past spring. Gage received his official service dog, Landon, in June and started at Guilford College this fall with Landon as his “roommate,” with full support from the university for the furry freshman. Sadie is an alternate service dog for Gage. 

Satisky said she would happily talk with another family with a similar request but recommended ensuring that a student has a legitimate need for a service dog. She also would require a dog on campus to be a certified service animal or therapy dog like the Fitzgeralds’ dog.

Several years ago, Steve Robins, former high school head at University School of Nashville in Nashville, TN, was approached by his administrative assistant Debbie Fulcher about bringing her service puppy to campus. Fulcher and her husband were training a puppy to be a sight dog and wanted to acclimate her to noisy, busy environments. Robins agreed and gained approval from the head of school.

Fulcher initially kept the puppy tethered to her on a long leash and placed her in a crate when she had to go to a meeting. She kept a few toys, a bed, and a water bowl in her office area, which was already a popular place for visitors. “Debbie has a lot of contact with faculty, students, and parents,” Robins said. “People come to see her, they don’t just call.”

While students enjoyed seeing Fulcher’s puppy, some lower and middle school students stopped by when they were having a tough day to visit for a few moments. The dog also served as somewhat of an ambassador regarding service learning.

“It generated no end of conversation about service,” Robins said. “It was a way to show kids something meaningful to others in society, teach them about people’s needs, and help them become more sensitive to that.”

“I was very pleased with the fact that it was so well accepted,” Fulcher said. Over the years, only a few people have expressed discomfort about her dogs.

Fulcher and her husband have trained a total of four sight dogs but now own two of them. Joy, a golden retriever, developed cataracts and was unable to serve. Another dog, Leah, was retired early after her person became ill. Fulcher was able to adopt Joy and Leah but still wanted them to fulfill their potential as service dogs. She then approached Robins about giving them jobs on campus as literacy assistants. A first grade teacher expressed interest in beta testing the program, which turned into a success. All first grade classes participate in the program in which students take turns reading to the dogs in the library; however, students are not required to have contact with the dogs. Most are very excited to visit the library, which aids their confidence and enthusiasm regarding books and reading.

“It has some pedagogical value,” Robins said. “And there is a unifying emotional element that comes with dogs and that has been huge.”

While a request for a service dog on campus is one that relatively few school heads may deal with, they are likely to encounter a number of students with various needs. Responding to a parent’s wish may give a head pause (or paws, in this case) but supporting students in ways that will help them to be more successful on their academic journeys speaks highly to any school’s mission. 


*SAIS received permission from Gage Fitzgerald and family to share his condition. 

Photos provided by the Fitzgerald family and by University School of Nashville. 

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