Woof! Now solve for X: Students praise dogs' presence at school

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Monday, January 20, 2014

JANESVILLE—School district policy doesn't explicitly prohibit lying on the floor during algebra, but it probably is a given.

At the Rock River Charter School, officials are willing to make exceptions for two attendees. The first is Reagan, a black Labrador who comes to school almost every day. The second is Murphy, a beagle mix who serves as the substitute dog.

The dogs—mostly Reagan—have been part of the school since the beginning of the year.

“We kind of discussed having a dog at school,” said Lisa Peterson, school principal. “We went through the protocol, got the permission slips signed. She came, and the kids really seem to like her. They say she makes it feel more like home.”

Reagan likes it, too, said her owner, Dean of Students Angela Burdette.

First, there's the excitement of riding in the car—dog Nirvana. Then, at school, there are all sorts of people to greet and new smells, a set of stimuli that make the car ride seem dull by comparison. There's lots of petting, and sometimes a student or visitor will give her a scratch on her back in that impossible-to-reach spot.

Oh joy.

Burdette teaches algebra and English. During class, Reagan wanders the room or rests near Burdette while she works on the SMART Board.

On a recent school day, the explanation of a whisker plot—there's some algebra you'll never use in real life—caused Reagan to raise her head and look inquiringly at the SMART Board. But no, they weren't talking about her whiskers, which are getting a little gray. Nor were they talking about anything else she understood, so she laid her head back down on her front paws.

Charter school students had trouble articulating exactly what it is about the dogs that make school better. Behind all of their comments, however, one message seemed to come through: The presence of a good-natured dog makes school seem less like school.

Here's how they described it:

-- “It's more mellow,” Jeffrey Sherman, 16.

-- “I really don't like dogs, but I like her. She always comes over to me,” Jaylyn Braxton, 17

-- “It makes me feel more comfortable, it's more like it is at home,” Matthew Hereford, 17.

-- “It helps with anxiety; it makes it so much less when you can pet the dog,” Marie Osiecki.

The Rock River Charter School is home to a variety of school district programs, including school-age parent, e-learning, GED and alternative high school.

Reagan and the substitute dog spend almost all of their days with the alternative high school students, teens who found the atmosphere in the traditional high school setting difficult academically or socially. 

It's not surprising, then, that any element that eases the burdens and challenges of learning—and being an adolescent—is going to appeal to students.

“One of our goals is to make our school more home-like, more warm and welcoming,” Peterson said.

Tough-minded grownups will now say, "When I was a child, we didn't need a dog in school. We sat at our desks and did our work."

Yes, and so do the students at the Rock River Charter School.

During an independent study session, students sat at desks and ground their way through algebra questions that required them to solve the equation for X and show all their work—some things never change—and various other mathematical tasks. The presence of Reagan didn't impede their progress.

When Burdette has to have a one-on-one talk with a student about a performance or attendance issue, Reagan can diffuse tension just by being there.

While Reagan is happy to stay in one classroom, Murphy, the substitute dog, likes to tour his temporary domain with or without his owner, teacher Mary Hathaway.

Murphy is the kind of dog that always seems to be saying, “Hey! Hey! Hey! What's going on? What are you doing?”

Both dogs exude unconditional love for the students, but Murphy is more exuberant. It's like he's trying to make up for the days he's not in the classroom.

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