Facility Dog Brings More Than Smiles to Red Land High School
As SSD Rudder walks through the hallway at Red Land High School, students call out greetings or let their hands briefly brush against her soft fur as they walk through the hallway on their way to their classrooms. Some stop for a fist bump or high five.
Students and faculty alike can’t help but smile when they see the yellow Labrador retriever. But she does so much more than just elicit smiles. She’s changing the dynamic of the school.
SSD Rudder is a facility dog, trained by Susquehanna Service Dogs. Unlike assistance dogs that are specifically trained for one person, facility dogs learn to work with many people. “What we’re looking for in a potential facility dog is a dog that thrives in group settings,” said Deb Tack, Executive Director of Susquehanna Service Dogs. “They have to enjoy working with lots of different people.”
Rudder does more than greet students in the hallway. She’s trained in specific tasks to help students address their emotions and handle stress. “She’ll sit next to a student who’s feeling stressed and help them move on with their day,” said Alison Gonce, an English teacher at Red Land and one of Rudder’s handlers. “I got a text message one time to bring her to a classroom where a senior was having a tough time handling the stress of preparing to graduate. In the past, this student would put her head down on her desk and have an emotional outburst when she lifted her head. When I brought Rudder into the classroom, the girl’s head was on her desk. Rudder went right over to her and put her head in her lap. After a moment or so, the girl began petting her. Eventually, she sat up and quietly moved on with her day as if nothing had happened.”
That’s the magic of SSD Rudder’s presence.
But it’s not really magic. Many of the tasks Rudder is trained to perform involve some form of pressure, whether she’s resting her head on a student’s lap or lying across their legs. That pressure has a calming and grounding effect. She has also been trained to sit between someone’s legs, bringing her close so they can pet her and focus on the present moment.
Rudder’s training began from the moment she was born. She’s part of SSD’s Boating Litter (hence the name “Rudder”), and she spent her first eight weeks with her siblings playing with a variety of toys, walking on different surfaces, and learning to stay calm around all kinds of sounds. She spent the next 18 months with her volunteer puppy raiser, where she learned good house manners, self-control, and the foundational cues that all SSD dogs learn. Her puppy raiser took her out in public to get her used to working in different environments.
Then she entered Advanced Training, where SSD’s professional trainers assumed her training and evaluated her to figure out what type of assistance dog work would best suit her. Once it became apparent that she loved people and would make a great facility dog, she was matched with Red Land High School and trained specifically for the school’s needs. Rudder’s entire training with SSD took a little over two years.
“The matching process was incredibly thorough,” said Alison. “SSD is great at looking at the qualities of the dog and the needs of your building and making the match.”
Although it took ten years to get approval from the district to get a facility dog, it was worth the wait, said Ann Dalby, another of SSD Rudder’s handlers and a learning support teacher and chair of the Special Education Department. “We’re seeing life-altering results. Rudder has had such a positive impact on the school.”
When Rudder first started working at Red Land, however, she wasn’t working with students. The school got her at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, so only teachers and other staff were in the school, instructing students virtually. But that doesn’t mean that she didn’t have an impact during that difficult school year.
“Teachers would come in and just cuddle and sometimes cry with the dog,” said Ann. “Once some students started coming back in-person, Rudder helped relieve the anxiety of students only having a few friends back in school. I’d hear them say they were scared to come back until they heard there was going to be a dog here. Rudder helped them know it was going to be okay.”
In addition to the specific tasks she’s been trained to perform, SSD Rudder is very emotionally sensitive. “She senses when a student is feeling anxious or stressed, often before the teachers know,” said Alison. In that way, she has enhanced relationships between teachers and students, helping teachers recognize when students need additional support. Rudder also works with students outside a classroom setting on a one-on-one basis.
Her impact extends beyond the school building. “Parents tell me that their children tell them about the ‘dog part’ of their day,” said Alison. “She leads to great family dialog.”
This kind of widespread impact is the result of years of training. Susquehanna Service Dogs is looking for puppy raisers to raise SSD’s youngest dogs-in-training to help them learn the skills they’ll need to become life-changing dogs like SSD Rudder. To become a volunteer puppy raiser, visit SSD’s website.