A puppy named Gabby is expected to have a calming influence on children in area schools. Christie Gerdes, director of the Barton County Special Services Cooperative, brought the perky sheepadoodle to the Great Bend USD 428 Board of Education meeting on Monday to introduce her.
“It is our plan that she will be able to go into different special education classrooms across the cooperative and visit with students and staff for a day. When she comes up to you and wags her tail – and her whole body – you can’t help but smile and feel a little better about your day,” Gerdes said.
BCSS staff started training the 10-week-old puppy this week. After puppy kindergarten, she will progress through more advanced training as she gets older. As for her “puppy parent,” Gerdes happily assumed the role and Gabby can be found following along at her feet most days.
Gabby won’t be a service dog that performs a specific task. Instead, as a therapy dog, she’ll provide comfort and emotional support.
A sheepadoodle is half Old English Sheepdog and half standard poodle. The breed has earned a reputation for being a good choice for therapy dogs. They don’t shed and they share the traits of being patient, protective, kind and smart. Gerdes expects she’ll weigh about 50 pounds when full-grown.
“She seems like a natural,” Gerdes said. In her first two weeks on the job, Gabby has already visited several places, getting to know the buildings and meet students. At Park Elementary School in Great Bend she also met her cohort therapy dog, Rudy, a golden retriever. She’s also been to Eisenhower Elementary and Helping Hands Preschool in Great Bend, and Ellinwood Grade School.
“We started thinking about a therapy dog after a visit from a staff member at the Ellsworth Correctional Facility who works with their therapy dog program,” Gerdes said. “The trainer and her dog visited some of our classrooms in the 2015-2016 school year and the visit made such an impact on some of our students with special needs that we decided to look into a therapy dog for our cooperative.”
While funds were acquired at that time from the Post Rock Jaycees club, a grant from Walmart, and other private donations, BCSS remained on a waiting list but the cooperative was never matched with a therapy dog. Gerdes also noted the difficulty of finding a “parent” for the dog who can share time with a wide range of classrooms across the cooperative.
“The idea surfaced again this school year as we work to make connections with students who might feel more isolated and unsure of themselves. Knowing the challenges we faced before, trying to find a match of a mature dog who was already trained, we decided to ‘grow our own.’ This is a concept we’re very familiar with as we often grow passionate staff members into licensed special education professionals to fill teaching positions across the cooperative,” Gerdes said.
“Gabby came to us from one of our previous preschool teachers,” she said. “So far, she has just the right temperament and motivation to work with students with special needs. Gabby’s presence will help students learn how to self-regulate and stay calm, as well as lessons of kindness and caring.”
Additional reporting by Andrea Bauer, Great Bend USD 428.