Marshyll Scott and Saira Morales sat in a makeshift pen in Myakka City Elementary School’s media center and watched Ruby Sue walk around.
“Place,” Scott commanded Ruby Sue, a 7-month-old Welsh terrier who then sat in her little bed in the pen.
With Ruby Sue in place, Scott and Morales, who are second graders, took turns reading to Ruby Sue.
Every so often, Ruby Sue would get up and press her nose between the bars of the pen, hoping she’d be able to get out so she could play with the other students.
“Place,” Scott said again.
Scott and Morales are a part of a group of second graders who are helping to train Ruby Sue to become a therapy dog.
Myakka City and Gilbert W. McNeal elementary schools will be the latest schools to have therapy dogs on their campuses in East County. Tara Elementary School has had Callie, a golden retriever, serving as a therapy dog for the past four years.
Karen Chinault, the assistant principal at Tara Elementary, bought Callie specifically to be a therapy dog for her school. Callie, who is 4 years old, has been on campus almost every day since she was 10 weeks old. She even has her photo in the yearbook each year.
“She’s always loved being with the kids,” Chinault said. “From the beginning, that’s been her biggest love, to be out in the school with the kids no matter what we’re doing.”
When walking down the halls, Chinault said students are always saying hello to Callie first before greeting her. When Chinault doesn’t have Callie with her, the first question she gets is, “Where’s Callie?”
Chinault, Carol Ricks, the principal at Myakka City Elementary, and Sheila Waid, the principal at McNeal Elementary, all decided to train their dogs to become therapy dogs after seeing the benefits of having a therapy dog in their personal lives or in a school setting.
Chinault learned petting a dog releases oxytocin, which is also known as the cuddle chemical, and helps people to reduce anxiety and stress while increasing relaxation.
Chinault said Callie is a great resource to have on testing days. She’ll bring Callie to students to give them an opportunity to pet her and have a few moments of joy and relaxation before they begin testing.
Since October, Ricks has been bringing Ruby Sue to school. Ricks said students who didn’t show an interest in attending school are now sometimes the first to run through the doors in the morning because they want to see the dog.
One of the hopes for the program is that students develop a joy of reading to the therapy dogs and therefore enjoy reading more.
Ricks started “Reading with Ruby,” to encourage students to be the top or most improved reader in their class, a position that is rewarded with reading time to Ruby Sue.
Scott and Morales said they are eager to read so they can be with Ruby Sue, whether they are reading to her or just walking her.
Debbie Ackaway, Myakka City Elementary’s tech manager, was in her office one day when she heard a student who normally is too scared to read aloud, but who was reading nonstop to Ruby Sue.
“He would always say, ‘I can’t read, I can’t read,’” Ackaway said of the student. “To go from that to just sitting there for 15 minutes reading nonstop to the dog is amazing.”
Besides helping with academics, the principals said their dogs are instrumental in assisting students and staff members emotionally.
In January, Coach Justin Darr, a physical education teacher at McNeal Elementary, died. Waid had planned on bringing Zeke, her 2-year-old golden retriever, into the school to start working with students, but she realized her staff needed Beau, her now 5-month-old golden retriever, to emotionally support them.
“The staff just needed him,” Waid said. “If you can see how they change when staff members come in to see him, they get excited and all of a sudden that sadness goes away. They just want to sit there and cuddle with him. They will come up for their whole planning time just to cuddle with him.”
Zeke is starting his therapy dog training while Beau is starting his obedience training. By the end of the 2023-2024 school year, Beau and Zeke will be official therapy dogs for McNeal Elementary.
The dogs are there for students who need to calm down or who are anxious.
“If these dogs can relieve that stress or anxiety for just a few minutes, it’s worth it,” Waid said. “We have the best counselors ever, but it’s different when you have a little dog. It’s amazing.”
Chinault said she had a student March 24 who was anxious in class. The teacher requested Chinault bring Callie down to her classroom. Callie knew to simply go to the student and let the student pet her. After some quiet time with Callie, Chinault said the student was ready to express her feelings and get back to her classwork.
Ricks said Ruby Sue has been a valued resource for the school counselor, Debbie Veldkamp. For example, Ricks said Veldkamp and Ricks were trying to talk to a student about a traumatic experience, but the student was too upset to speak. The student knew she could ask for Ruby Sue, so Ricks brought the puppy into the room. Ruby Sue simply sat next to the student and let the student pet and hug her. With Ruby Sue’s help, Veldkamp and Ricks were able to hear from the student and understand her needs.
“A dog doesn’t judge,” Ricks said. “It’s like a dog’s nature and they just know their intuition. (Ruby Sue) sat there, let the little girl hold her and gave her the comfort to share. If you’re not calm, you have other things you’re dealing with and if your mind isn’t right, you can’t learn. It’s about helping the kids become more successful.”
Ackaway said she goes to Ruby Sue to get her “dog fix” every day.
“Whether you’re having a good day or a bad day, you just need that extra love,” Ackaway said. “It makes school fun again. It’s a welcoming place.”
Chinault said there are some staff members at Tara who will stop by her office twice a day to see Callie.
“It makes me feel good to be able to have (a therapy dog) as an option for helping kids and staff members. It’s definitely stressful in the field of education these days,” Chinault said.
Training a puppy to become a therapy dog doesn’t come without its challenges.
Chinault, Waid and Ricks spend hours each week training their dogs outside of school.
In order to become a therapy dog, the dog must complete the AKC Canine Good Citizen test for obedience, pass a therapy dog evaluation and be registered with a national therapy dog organization.
Much like many teachers and administrators put their degrees on the walls of their classrooms and offices, Callie has her certificates displayed on the walls of Chinault's office.
Ricks put a dog pen inside the media center for Ruby Sue to relax in while students are coming and going, but to Ricks’ surprise, Ruby Sue is sometimes an escape artist. She can jump the more than 2 1/2 feet it takes to get over the pen.
Scott and Morales said Ruby Sue escaped the pen one day, and the students spent at least 5 minutes running around the media center trying to catch her. They finally were able to get her attention with treats and get her back in the pen. Now, Ricks has put a cover on the pen to ensure there are no future attempts at escaping.
The front office staff at McNeal had to stack boxes on the front desk to stop Beau from getting excited and jumping over the desk to greet people.
In the future, Ricks would like to start a blog, “The Adventures of Ruby Sue,” to keep people updated on her journey as a therapy dog.
She also plans to have a small area in the media center dedicated to Ruby Sue called “Ruby’s Room.” Ricks wants to have students use what they’ve learned in STEM class to design the room and have a local Eagle Scout actually make the students’ design a reality.
For now, Chinault, Ricks and Waid are thrilled their dogs are able to make a difference for hundreds of students and staff members.
“My purpose in life is to make a difference in other’s lives,” Ricks said. “To know that not only am I making a difference, but also my small four-legged furry animal is making a difference just brings me joy and helps me know that I’m doing my job as principal.”
Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.