As told by Kaelee Heideman, 2023 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year and a school counselor at Carl Traeger Elementary school in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Spartacus is our school therapy dog. He's an English Lab and his birthday is July 31. He'll be four this summer, but it was fun to celebrate his half birthday at school this year. He joined our school family at the beginning of January, so he's been with us for just under half a school year. He loves to play fetch and loves stuffies. He's the sweetest dog ever and has a perfect temperament for working with kids. He knows when he wears his vest that it's time to go to work, but when he takes that vest off at home he's a typical chaotic lab who likes to cause mischief.
The kids at school LOVE Spartacus (also known as Sparty, Sparagus, or Smartykiss). He has made such a difference in the short time he's been with us. The kids always look forward to having him come into their classes when I have Classroom Counseling lessons, but they can also sign up to read with him and we've piloted a small reading buddy program that I'm excited to expand next year.
I have a few students who get to do "Sparty jobs." They take him out for potty breaks, fill his water, or brush him. The nurturing jobs have been so important for these friends. It helps keeps kids accountable to do their school work and also gives them the opportunity to take care of a living thing. They tend to open up around Spartacus when they might not normally open up around other kids or adults.
Spartacus has worked his magic with my students who have anxiety. A few minutes with him seems to turn their whole day around. He has also really connected to some of my students with disabilities. They are more verbal around him and he can help them get unstuck when they seem to be having a hard time. Spartacus has become really great buddies with a kindergarten friend who has needed some extra support this year. This friend has a special pass to come see Sparty and he gets to spend a few minutes talking to him and snuggling with him. This kindergartner has shown Spartacus the work he's proud of and we've even worked some social skills into our time by having Sparty play games with the student to teach sportsmanship.
Spartacus has been equally helpful for my staff. As much as the kids need him, there are plenty of staff members who stop by my office or stop us in the halls just to get a quick pet in when they're in need of some Spartacus love.
I knew getting a therapy dog would be amazing for my school, but I have really been blown away with how much he's done in such a short time. Spartacus and I have responded to three crises within the district since he joined me at school. I've responded to numerous crises throughout the district prior to having Spartacus and the difference he makes is quite evident. People who are going through something traumatic gravitate toward Spartacus. He helps them feel safe and he has the sweetest eyes that just makes the world seem a little better. Staff and students alike are so comforted by his presence.
I'm a school counselor, so having a therapy dog by my side just seems like a natural fit. My principal and I had been talking about getting a therapy dog for years, but it became possible when I received a Herb Kohl Fellowship award last year. I knew that's where I wanted the school portion of the money to go and after I got my principal's approval, I asked my director of pupil services and we got approval from the school board. Although I already had a dog at home, I really wanted a therapy dog that was professionally trained.
Professionally trained therapy dogs are pricey, which is why the money from the Herb Kohl Foundation was so helpful. We worked with Jeremy Van Beek at Elite K9 Training. He already had Spartacus in training and we had a conversation about which dog might be the best fit for me and our school. Spartacus was actually originally in training to be a service dog to a military veteran with PTSD, but they realized he liked people too much, so they made the switch over to the therapy track. Sparty really does love people, so I couldn't ask for a better fit as a therapy dog. My principal and I had to go through handler training before Sparty came home with me, and Jeremy is there as a resource when I need him.
Because Spartacus was purchased using money from the Herb Kohl Foundation and some additional grant money, he is owned by the school district. I am currently his primary handler and caretaker. I get reimbursed for his vet bills and receive a monthly stipend to cover his other expenses. When it is time for him to retire, I'll make a request to the district that he become my dog officially and will assume all financial responsibility at that point.
I feel so grateful to have Spartacus at school and overall it's been a really smooth transition. The biggest challenges came at home with getting my other dog used to being a big brother. We had a rocky few weeks when Sparty first joined us, but Milo has officially accepted him into his life now, so things are much better at home. It was also challenging for me to get used to doing my school counselor job with a dog by my side. The cognitive load for the first month was exhausting and I left school feeling very tired every day. It was challenging to be responsible for a classroom of students while I was teaching and make sure Spartacus was following his directions. It was hard to figure out his break and bathroom schedule at first so that it would align with all the things I had on my calendar each day. I had to make sure he was getting his rest so that he could be at his best while also making sure that the kids who needed him during their toughest moments would have access to him.
Now that we've settled in, I feel much more confident with handling all aspects of my job while having Spartacus join me. I'm sure the start of next school year will bring its own challenges after he hasn't had the structure of school all summer, but I'm hoping to find some opportunities to give him some practice so we don't have as big of a learning curve come September.
After these last few months with Spartacus, I really believe that all schools should have access to a therapy dog. He has worked wonders for my building and I can feel how the energy changes when he's around. I'm grateful to be in a school district that has been so willing to test this out and do what's best for our kids!
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