Sheldon school welcomes new therapy dog

Gunner, a new certified therapy dog at East Elementary in Sheldon, sniffs third-grader Natilie Schmith’s right hand.

SHELDON—East Elementary’s newest staff member has a friendly, furry face and four legs.

Gunner is the Sheldon school’s new certified therapy dog. His first full day at the building was May 10.

The 4-year-old, 80-pound golden retriever belongs to East Elementary guidance counselor Heather Craig and her family.

“His goal is basically to provide comfort and make students or staff happy and feel good here at school,” Craig said.

She described one-on-one and small-group situations in which Gunner can be used as a therapy dog with students at the school.

“If a student I’m meeting with wants Gunner out, they can tell me, ‘Yes, I want him out,’ or ‘No, I don’t,’ and then he can go and sit in the kennel while I’m visiting with that student,” Craig said.

“They always have a choice,” she said. “When I do small groups, he can be in here with the students if they all want him to be around.”

The East Elementary students she meets with may pet Gunner while they talk to her if they want to.

“Scientists have found that just the actual petting of an animal calms our own anxiety and relaxes us, so they’re finding that therapy dogs in school are very beneficial to students with emotional needs,” Craig said.

“He’s been a great motivator for some of our students here,” she said. “Having students maybe that are working toward a behavior goal — if you get this done or meet these goals, then, yes, you can come and have some reward time with Gunner.”

She described what happens when Gunner interacts with students in a classroom situation at the school.

“He can go to the class if the teacher wants him to,” Craig said, noting that the dog’s appearance would be considered a reward for something the students accomplished. “He can go spend time with the students in the class.”

She noted that Gunner does not go with her when she teaches her large-group guidance classes at East Elementary.

“We’re not doing that at school because that would be a distraction to what I’m teaching,” Craig said. “The students wouldn’t pay attention to me. They would pay attention to Gunner.”

The dog draws a lot of attention from students at the school when Craig is walking him in one of the building’s hallways.

“Students can see him as they’re going out to recess a lot of times,” Craig said. “I stand out in the hall and the kids can come pet him.”

She noted that rules have been established for East Elementary students who want to pet Gunner while he is at the school with her.

“The rules are that you have to ask to pet him, so I know the student is there, Gunner knows the student is there,” Craig said. “Let him sniff you and then you can pet him.”

Permission from children’s parents also was required because there are some students whom Gunner is not allowed to be around.

“We do have a few students with allergies, so we’re very careful,” Craig said.

Gunner never goes into a classroom where there is a student who is not allowed to be around him.

“The rest of the students can come out and meet him, but he cannot go into that student’s classroom,” Craig said. “If a parent did not give permission otherwise in general, then their student cannot pet Gunner.”

She had been trying since Gunner was a puppy to get permission to start a therapy dog program at East Elementary.

About a year and a half ago, then-Sheldon School District superintendent Robin Spears gave Craig his blessing to start pursuing the idea.

After receiving Spears’ permission, Craig looked into the kind of training Gunner would need to undergo to become a therapy dog.

Spears’ replacement, Cory Myer, and East Elementary principal Jason Groendyke have approved of the therapy dog program.

Gunner has been a part of Craig’s family — which includes her husband, Cody, and sons Cooper, 7; Kipton, 5; and Dane, 3 — since he was 8 weeks old.

“We needed him to be well-behaved,” Craig said. “Since he was our family’s dog, he had a lot of work to do.”

Gunner received five weeks of behavioral and obedience training from a professional dog trainer January-February at Smoken Dakota Kennels near Sioux Falls, SD.

The Sheldon Community Schools Education Foundation helped financially support Gunner’s training.

The trainer evaluated Craig and Gunner in February after the canine’s training was completed to make sure he was ready to be certified through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

“He and I together had to pass a test and be observed by an evaluator on leash training to make sure that Gunner would listen to my commands, wouldn’t be distracted, was friendly, approachable, just obedient,” Craig said.

Gunner is kind of a pilot program for therapy dogs at East Elementary, where Craig is in her fifth year as the guidance counselor.

“If this goes well, we’re hoping that maybe in the future this would be something that other teachers might have, possibly like a special ed teacher,” Craig said.

She has been amazed by the reaction of students when they see Gunner. She brings him to the school every other day when classes are in session.

“It’s like Christmas every day when they see a dog at school, and you would think that none of them had ever seen a dog before because they’re so excited just to see him,” Craig said.