Therapy Dog, Toby

September 2, 2020

Teachers at Gateway to Success Academy on Tuesday got to know the newest member of the school’s support team — Toby, the therapy dog.

Toby is a pure-bred Goldendoodle who was purchased by G2S with the help of funds from an anonymous donor, according to Superintendent Jamie Bandstra.

He spent the last eight or nine months being trained by specialists in Ortonville. Last week, G2S teacher Phil Quinlan retrieved Toby and brought him home.

“He’s going to be working in the classrooms with students,” Jill Lynch a behavioral specialist at G2S said. “We’re hoping just his presence will have a calming effect for students.”

During Tuesday’s training session, staff members got to meet Toby and his trainers, Fred Saber and Mike Green, during a demonstration in preparation for the upcoming first day of school.

In the grassy area adjacent to the G2S building, teachers spread out as Saber showed them how to lead Toby while walking and jogging, how to give commands and how to ensure he’s paying attention, which requires a light tug on the leash and a verbal command of “leave it.”

It’s just leadership, not cruelty, Saber assured the staff. “I want Toby to pay attention to (you) all the time… He’s your dog now. I’m just showing you how to handle him,” he said. Saber said that after months of being cooped up in a training kennel, Toby was thrilled to be at his new home.

“He’s been ‘in jail’ for nine months and now he’s happy to be free,” he said. Toby will stay primarily with the Quinlan family, but will also be acclimated to the homes of other teachers.

Bringing him to the school has been “in the works for over a year,” according to Quinlan, and the idea stemmed from the school’s efforts to integrate trauma-informed practices. Quinlan and Bandstra said Lynch, who has decades of experience in the field of behavioral health field, was instrumental in bringing the idea forward. “There’s a lot of research that shows (therapy dogs) can have a physiological effect. They can bring down blood pressure, lower heart rates, increase good hormones (and) decrease stress hormones, which helps students focus on schooling,” Lynch said. “We’re working with kids who have traumatic backgrounds, too, but he’ll have a calming effect on the whole building.” Bandstra said it’s important to acknowledge trauma can take on many forms and manifest in a variety of ways.

“There’s a lot of students in all of our schools that are experiencing (anxieties) on the inside… and Toby can really impact what’s going on with people’s emotions and what’s going on the inside,” he said.

Coordinating effective trauma-informed curriculum is a group effort, according to Lynch. “It’s like a mosaic… and Toby will be a valuable part of that,” she said.

The logistics of Toby’s day-to-day schedule at the school are still being determined, according to Lynch, but she said he will be available on an as-needed basis, adding that if students are struggling or experiencing crises.

“We’re working on the details, but what we’re hoping is he’ll be present in every classroom at different times, so students can look forward (to seeing him). Or a student is struggling… they can have some special time with the dog,” she said.

As the school year gets underway, Bandstra said the staff will continue to work with Saber and Green to understand Toby’s needs and make sure he isn’t being over-exerted.

“We have to let Toby acclimate. We don’t want to overwhelm him in the beginning,” Bandstra said. “We’ll develop some kind of consistent schedule that really gives him exposure to all of our students. Being in different classrooms at different days, being available for counseling sessions, but also having some down time.” The decision to bring Toby to G2S preceded the coronavirus pandemic, which has amplified anxieties for people from all walks of life.

According to Bandstra, Toby’s presence will be even more valuable as students and teachers continue to transition back to normal life in the wake of the pandemic.

“The stress that we’re all feeling related to (COVID-19) — Toby’s going to help with that,” he said. “It’s like medicine, and Toby will provide a dose of good medicine for people.”

Bandstra said students have been anticipating Toby’s arrival for months. Even new students, set to start at G2S for the first time this year, have expressed their excitement about meeting him.

“The other day, I was talking to a student who’s coming to our school, and they were a little nervous,” Bandstra said. “I said, ‘Did you know we’re going to have a therapy dog?’ … and he called to his mom, ‘Mom, they’re going to have a dog,’ and he was excited, so you could tell, for him, that was a positive.”

Toby will fit into the school’s purpose, which, Bandstra said, is sometimes misinterpreted by those who have never been to the school or learned about the non-traditional learning opportunities it offers.

“Our mission is to provide unique supports for students who need those supports. It’s hard for traditional schools to provide those, and because of our smaller size and our mindset, we can do that… and Toby is part of that,” Bandstra said. “But this is good for all kids.”

That was a point Bandstra stressed with the staff as well. “The work we’re doing for Toby, that’s good for all of us. For children or students that come from all different families, this is a good thing,” he told the staff during Tuesday’s training.

Toby will be at the school indefinitely, and staff members said they’re excited to have him there, and see how his presence will benefit students and teachers alike.

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