As students filled the hallways of Edward Stone Middle School between classes, Elsa rose from her chair and began to pace, eager to greet her two-legged friends.

“When she hears kids in the hallways, she gets restless,” school counselor Tamara Levinson said the morning of the first day back from spring break.

The 3-year-old Silver Labrador Retriever was more than ready to get back to work.

Smiling students pet and greeted Elsa as she made her way down the hallway, her tail wagging as she walked.

This good girl is nearing the end of her second year as a therapy dog at Ed Stone, and she knows her way around the building well.

“She’s really grown up here with middle school kids, which has been awesome for her because I feel like she has the same personality they do,” Levinson said.

Elsa visits classrooms with students so long as she has the teacher’s permission. She knows how to find her way back to the office she shares with Levinson.

A sign taped to the wall in Levinson’s office designates ownership of the chair below it to Elsa, who naps there in between the many visits she gets from students and staff.

“Kids just love to come in and take a break,” Levinson said. “I have so many pictures of them snuggling on the floor with them.”

From grey hound to Grayhound

Levinson, who formerly was a counselor for the West Burlington School District, long had considered getting a therapy dog to benefit students, but it wasn’t until her second year at Burlington High School that she went forward with it following the passing of one of her dogs at home.

She researched which breeds make for good therapy dogs and decided that a Lab was the way to go.

“Labs are just very family-prone dogs,” Levinson said. “So I started looking at Labs online and came across Silver Labs. I didn’t even know they existed. I had no clue, and I saw the Silver Lab and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re Grayhounds! Why not a Silver Lab?’ ”

IMG 2768 copy
Chazlyn Boyd and Elsa run down the hallway Monday,
March 20, 2023, at Edward Stone Middle School.

She found Elsa in the southern Iowa town of Albia and began to go through the steps needed to bring her into Burlington schools.

Upon completion of obedience training through Barb’s Dog Obedience in Burlington, Levinson got permission from then-superintendent Pat Coen to begin bringing Elsa to BHS. She was officially a therapy dog in training.

Elsa and Levinson spent the following summer going back and forth between Burlington and the Muscatine Humane Society, where Elsa received the training needed to prepare for the AKC Canine Good Citizenship Test.

“That’s where it got more difficult for her because they train in groups, not singles,” Levinson said. “She had to learn to focus with other dogs around. She was still very young, still very much a puppy.”

Despite her young age, Elsa passed the Good Citizenship Test and advanced to therapy dog training, ultimately earning her her therapy dog certification, as well as the certification tag that hangs on her harness alongside her staff ID, which displays her photo along with the words, “ELSA THE DOG.”

The two transferred to Ed Stone that fall, and Elsa has grown up playing with the middle schoolers at recess and cleaning up after them at lunch.

There’s also been ongoing training to teach Elsa more about the emotional support side of her job, such as recognizing and responding to signs of emotional distress. Levinson plans for Elsa to go through another round of training this summer to get certified as a psychiatric service dog specializing in post traumatic stress disorder and depression.

For Elsa and other therapy dogs to be in schools, their handlers must provide proof of vaccination, documentation of training, and personal liability insurance.

It’s all part of a policy whose creation was spurred by a presentation put on by a group of Ed Stone students that helped pave the way for an official path to getting therapy dogs in Burlington schools.

Worth the work

Before Deborah Brueck was a school counselor at Aldo Leopold Intermediate School, she was at Ed Stone and Grimes.

“We had a bunch of students — this was when I worked at Edward Stone — who had a fundraiser,” Brueck recalled on a recent afternoon while Lolli, her 5-year-old Goldendoodle, eyed a coworker’s lunch in the breakroom at Aldo. “It was a bully prevention group, and they came up with the idea. They said what we need here is a therapy dog.”

Brueck was on board with their idea but told the students they would need to research hypoallergenic dogs and present their proposal to the principal, who at the time was Angie Butler.

“Angie was like, “OK, kids, you did an amazing job, let me think about this,’ ” Brueck said. “And then the kids walked out and Mrs. Butler’s like, ‘Debbie, get back in here.’ ”

Butler pulled out her phone and showed Brueck a picture of Goldendoodle puppies up for grabs that her pastor had posted earlier that day.

That night, Brueck and Butler went to see the puppies, one of whom was sporting a purple collar.

“(Mrs. Butler) just started laughing and said it’s meant to be,” Brueck said with a smile.

Brueck worked with administrators and the school board to craft the district’s therapy dog policy, which puts the cost and responsibility of the dogs on their handlers, though PTOs can sponsor therapy dogs for their building if they so choose.

“The work that goes into having a therapy dog is long, and there are many hoops to jump through,” Brueck said. “However, it is so worth it.”

Brueck convinced her husband that they needed a dog and brought home Lolli the same day their daughter was deployed to Jordan.

“We picked up Lolli and poured all our love into her,” Brueck said. “She’s a good dog and she is very intuitive. The kids love her, the staff really like her, so it’s been a wonderful addition.”

Lolli’s arrival was followed by Monte, Betsy Wolf’s Welsh Pembroke Corgi, who began coming to BHS in 2019.

“When we went to STAR puppy training the trainer said that he had the right personality to be a therapy dog and suggested I find out what was necessary for the school district and we went through additional training and certification,” Wolf said.

Remembering Sparty

While Lolli was the first dog to come to the district under the policy, she was preceded by Sparty, whose time with the district goes back to when James Madison was used as a middle school.

“Probably one of the best-known therapy dogs in the district was Sparty,” Brian Johnson, director of career and technical education and food services, said while his therapy dog in training, Rufus, greeted a visitor.

Sparty came to James Madison on his own freewill — frequently.

He would go there to visit students and staff after escaping his owner’s home. Now retired, Kent Strabala was a counselor there at the time and ended up adopting the dog from his then-owner. This was before all BCSD students were Grayhounds, and Strabala named him after the James Madison Spartans.

“He’d roam the building for the most part,” said Johnson, who was the principal of James Madison at the time. “Kent could get on the intercom before it was time to leave and go, ‘Sparty, it’s time to go home,’ and Sparty would just come running down the hallway to the office.”

Strabala and Sparty ultimately transferred to Sunnyside, where he is still remembered fondly by staff. Sparty passed away unexpectedly a few years later.

Good dogs have good results

Sparty left a strong impression on Johnson, who couldn’t help but notice all of the benefits of having a dog in the school. He’s seeing similar outcomes with Rufus.

“One class in particular has a nonverbal student in it. When they first met Rufus, they were kind of scared of him, but now it’s like the highlight for them. They get all excited and get to moving their arms and get a big grin on their face and look forward to it,” Johnson said.

Therapy dogs have been shown to help children learn social skills, reduce stress, and even aid in cognitive development by stimulating memory and problem-solving skills. According to a 2019 study published by the National Institute of Health, the presence of a dog in the classroom promotes positive mood and provides significant anti-stress effects on the body. Another study conducted by the University of California found that students who participated in canine reading programs increased their reading fluency by between 12% and 30%.

Levinson and Dayton Leazer, a school counselor intern at Ed Stone, have also seen the benefits of having Elsa around firsthand.

“She gets kids to open up a lot faster,” Leazer said. “It gives them some common ground to get them to start talking.”

“They just pet and focus on her, but then they can talk because they don’t have to make eye contact with me if they’re telling me something that’s really upsetting to them,” Levinson added.

Brueck said Lolli’s presence has spurred more students to seek her out.

“I primarily had a lot of girls who would come and stop in the office if they were having some mental health concern or were needing some mediation,” Brueck said. “As soon as I got Lolli, then the boys started coming in, and they’d be like ‘I’m just here to see the dog.’ I’d sit down beside them and say, ‘How are things going?’ All of a sudden, the guys would start opening up, so it was like they had an in.”

Even for students who aren’t seeking counseling services, the presence of a dog has a positive impact.

“Seeing some of the kids in the morning, their eyes just light up when they see (Elsa),” Levinson said. “For some of them, I think it just sets the mood for the day, and it’s not just the students. I have staff throughout the day who come in here just to hug on Elsa.”

Levinson and Leazer said Elsa also seems to make students feel safer in school, even though she’s not trained in safety.

“They truly feel she is a safety wall,” Levinson said. “They feel like for somebody to get to them, they have to pass through Elsa, because she is very protective of them.”

Elsa doesn’t show aggression, but she does greet visitors in the office to make her presence known.

Next year, Elsa and Levinson will join Rufus and Monte at BHS, where Levinson plans for Elsa to be a regular presence in the TLC and special education classrooms. She also will walk the halls at passing time.

Ed Stone won’t be without a dog, however. Leazer will be bringing her 3-year-old Lab mix, Roxy.

“Even for me, just having Elsa around makes my day go a lot better,” Leazer said. “You can’t go from having a pup in the building to not having a pup in the building.”

North Hill Elementary School is on track to have a therapy dog as well as Patricia Krieger plans to get her 2-year-old Daschund mix, Grady, certified.

The training should be a breeze for Grady, who’s been known to fall asleep at Texas Roadhouse.

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