Teachers in the Vernon School District have a wide variety of tools at their disposal, from colourful blocks in kindergarten to the Smartboards used in secondary schools.
But for Nicole Stewart, school-based resource teacher at VLearn, one of the most important teaching tools is her two-year-old Cairn terrier, Kona.
“Kona started at eight weeks old when I was at Hillview because I ran into the right person, Truman Spring, director of student support services,” said Stewart. “He supports dogs in schools and we are working with him as an inquiry-based team to develop some policies and procedures to having dogs in schools.”
Stewart is part of a teacher inquiry group project through the Vernon Teachers’ Association that includes teachers Michell Bennett and Andrea Schiiler. The group is working to help teachers who are trying to develop policy and practices to use dogs in local schools to support students and learning.
They have invited Eileen Bona, an Alberta-based specialist in animal assisted therapy to speak at a presentation Feb. 22 at Vernon secondary school.
“As educators we deal with families and youth and if we’re going to bring this practice into our school and formalize it, we need to take into consideration our stakeholders, which are families and communities, to educate people so there is a base knowledge about what it is we do,” said Bennett, district secondary behaviour specialist. “We are finding there is a lot of misunderstanding about what it is, so trying to have that common language that we can speak to.”
Bennett met Bona 25 years ago because, as a registered clinical counsellor, she was looking for different ways of working with people both in the school setting and in her private practice.
“I’m an animal lover so I just tapped into this. Eileen was in the process of developing certification on a couple of different levels, right up to the masters level, which is what I have, so I’m just finishing my training with her around understanding animal behaviour,” said Bennett, who is now training two of her four dogs for the work, following in the footsteps of her beloved therapy dog who died recently.”
Bona is a psychologist and founder of Dreamcatcher Nature Assisted Therapy, making presentations on animal assisted therapy across Canada and helping other organizations to implement their own programs.
For Andrea Schiiler, her 15-month-old golden retriever, Honey, is as much her students’ dog as hers. A resource room teacher at Vernon secondary school, Schiiler has seen nothing but positive results since she started bringing Honey to school.
“It supports the mental health and wellness of typical kids out there,” said Schiiler. “I take Honey every day and when there are days she doesn’t come, the kids are very disappointed.
“She also builds capacity in my kids because they are moderately to severely intellectually delayed so they are paying attention to what’s going on more, they have something to talk about, they increase their speech clarity, so that they’re understood when they are talking about her. She’s a motivator: to go for walks, to come to school, to do work they don’t necessarily want to do, to build confidence. These dogs are definitely born to the work; I don’t really see her as my dog, she’s my kids’ dog — that’s her purpose.”
Amelia Hammerton is in Grade 5 at VLearn and to see her interact with Kona, it’s clear there is a strong connection between the two.
“When I first started here, I was nervous and then when I knew there was a dog here to help me be calm it really helped,” said Amelia, an animal lover who has a dog of her own at home.
Myah Gallie is a 15-year-old VLearn student who enjoys getting her school work done in the VLearn classroom, as it gives her a chance to hang out with Kona.
“When I first started coming here, I literally cried the first three days I was here, and I didn’t come in for the first three years, and then finally when Kona came I snuggled with her and it helped so much,” she said.
Stewart said she has seen the connection that Kona has with Myah and with all of her students, and she hopes to expand outside of the classroom by visiting seniors’ residences.
“Kona is so happy to see Myah,” she said. “I come out of my office and my dog is on her lap, the dog knows and goes to who needs her,” said Stewart. “I bring her every day and she has just found her place, so she affects everyone — even our staff benefits — and she builds confidence with my students.
“I am learning with Michell and Andrea what dogs need, and to make sure I am still meeting Kona’s needs, so I try and get her out for a lunch walk and that’s where she makes a difference to people in the community, and they interact with her. My kids range from kindergarten to Grade 7, so they’re doing a lot of mentoring with the younger students and modelling the way to be with Kona.”
Schiiler said Honey seems to have an instinct for those who need her the most on a particular day.
“She knows when someone might be having a seizure coming up or when they’re sick or when they’re anxious or they might have something going on at home so she knows something is up,” said Schiiler. “Honey is in the resource room but she is really bringing the typical kids together with the special ed kids, she is equalizing the playing field, she is increasing opportunities for both, they are starting to see each other differently through having a dog.”
Presented by School District 22 and the VTA, the Animal Assisted Interventions and Activities for Health and Wellbeing presentation with Eileen Bona takes place Thursday, Feb. 22 at the Vernon Secondary School Theatre from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $35 per person. To register, please contact Bennett at 250-306-6607 or firstname.lastname@example.org