Max the counselor

Eastern Elementary's new therapy dog, Max, with school counselor Melissa Johnson

Eastern Elementary will have a special new member on its staff this fall. His name is Max, a 6-month-old Aussiedoodle, a mix of Australian Shepherd and poodle, and he’s going to be Eastern Elementary’s therapy dog for the 2019-20 school year.

“Max is very playful, very calm and relaxed,” said Eastern Elementary School counselor and Max’s handler, Melissa Johnson. “He’s very smart too; he picks up on things really quick.”

Max was trained by the organization Pawsabilities Unleashed, which trains dogs for service, therapy and companionship. Max worked for eight weeks in a local prison with their “Paw and Order” program as part of his training. There, he learned how to comfort the inmates and sit still while being read to.

Max passed his Canine Good Citizenship Test from the American Kennel Club with a perfect score, according to Johnson. Johnson herself went through training to become a certified therapy dog handler.

Max also went through several temperament tests to determine that he could be a good therapy dog, said Johnson.

“He can handle being held, he can handle strangers petting him, he can handle his ears and his tail being pulled,” said Johnson.

 “Things that kids are probably going to do. Without growling or barking or anything like that.”

There are multiple benefits to having a therapy dog at the school, said Johnson. Therapy dogs can encourage attendance, comfort children with stress and anxiety and encourage reading skills. Dogs can help with social skills by giving students a friend to play with.

“We want it to be that he adds to the students’ environment,” said Johnson. “He’s another tool for them.”

Last school year Johnson sent home permission slips for a therapy dog to work with students, she said. Students will need parental permission in order to interact with Max. Johnson said most of the students got their permission slips signed.

“There was a handful of kids who didn’t get permission,” said Johnson.

 “And it was kids with allergies. And the parents told me ‘I don’t care for the dog being there, I just don’t want my kid to pet the dog.’”

Students who have dog allergies can be given parental permission not to participate in programs with Max. There is no such thing as a truly hypoallergenic dog, but Max is about as close as you can get, said Johnson. Max is naturally low shedding, groomed regularly and wiped with deodorizing wipes daily. Students are instructed to wash their hands after interacting with Max.

For kids who are afraid of dogs, Max can help students become more comfortable with the animal. Johnson has already worked with some students to help ease them into being comfortable around dogs, she said.  

“Kids are going to run into dogs at places that they go,” said Johnson.

 “This is a good dog for them to get used to, to kind of get over that fear.

“I don’t want to do anything that makes anybody feel uncomfortable. I’m not going to force him on any kid that doesn’t want that.”

Having a therapy dog at Eastern was Johnson’s idea. She said the school has been supportive of the plan. Max is going to be the first full-time therapy dog in Scott County Schools, said Johnson.

Johnson has shown the dog to other school counselors, who she said have expressed interest in bringing in therapy dogs to their schools.

“I see it as something that’s growing,” said Johnson, about the presence of therapy dogs in schools. “Danville Schools, that was kind of my example to look at, because they have therapy dogs in all of their schools. I was trying to model the program after who has had success.”

Max the canine counselor will be going in to work with the rest of the Eastern Elementary School staff when school starts on Aug. 21.

Noah Oldham can be reached at noldham@news-graphic.com.

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