Facility Dog Builds Connections in York County School

Facility Dog Builds Connections in York County School

Welcome SSD Doodle“Part of the family” – that’s the slogan of Dallastown Area Intermediate School. It’s also the perfect description for SSD Doodle, the school’s facility dog.

She’s a one-dog welcome committee for students arriving in the morning. She sits at the door greeting the fourth, fifth, and sixth graders as they come inside. “She gives kids the desire to come to school,” said Beth Duvall, Academic Intervention Specialist and one of SSD Doodle’s handlers. “She brings a sense of peace to the kids who are having a rough morning.”

SSD Doodle has been part of the school family for just shy of two years. However, it took less than three weeks for her handlers to see that she was going to have a big impact. When they found out they were getting Doodle, they created a slideshow of “Doodle Dos and Doodle Don’ts” for interacting with her. One of the “Don’ts” was that students did not have to be around Doodle if they didn’t want to. One of the students told her teacher that she didn’t want to be close to Doodle because she had had a bad experience with a dog. Her teacher reassured her that she would never have to be near Doodle. “Three weeks after Doodle’s first day, the student walked up to me and said she’d like to pet her,” said Marjie Whye, Intermediate School Counselor and Doodle’s other handler. “And she petted her and conquered her fear. Doodle helped her realize that she has power and control over her fears. That was the first ‘aha’ moment.”

SSD Doodle visitSince then, there have been many moments like that, of students building connections with the dog, staff, and each other. “She’s a unifier,” said Marjie.

As a facility dog from Susquehanna Service Dogs (SSD), Doodle has been extensively trained for her job at the school. Like all SSD dogs, she spent her first eighteen months with volunteer puppy raisers, learning foundational cues and behaviors. Her raisers took her all over the place – to stores, parks, and restaurants – to help her learn how to work in different environments.

Doodle then entered Advanced Training, where Susquehanna Service Dogs’ professional trainers took over her training, getting to know her individual strengths and weaknesses to determine what type of tasks she naturally enjoys and excels at. She then attended Meet the Dogs, where potential partners meet several dogs. Marjie and Beth met five dogs. The last one was Doodle.

From that time on, SSD Doodle was trained specifically for Dallastown Area Intermediate School.

“We could see that Doodle was a good match for the school, especially with her ability to connect with people and her willingness to work with multiple people in a room,” said Deb Tack, Director of Susquehanna Service Dogs.

Some of the specific tasks Doodle is trained to do focus on providing calming pressure, either by placing her head or the front half of her body in a student’s lap. While she’s also trained to lay completely on top of someone while they’re lying down, that particular behavior is used less often.

Doodle hugWhen a student is having a rough day, SSD Doodle will spin and sit between their feet, which students have affectionately dubbed a “Doodle hug.” Sometimes, though, all a student needs to move forward with a rough day is a little time to simply say hi. “She changes the environment wherever she is,” said Marjie. “She creates a space of happiness and calm. She’s so in tune with the entire room and intuitively knows how to respond to whoever she’s with.”

Doodle has helped students practice their reading skills, lending a nonjudgmental ear and a furry back to scratch. With the facility dog’s reassuring presence, some of the stigma of struggling to read has faded.

She’s also building connections. Students who otherwise wouldn’t have interacted are connecting over their shared love for Doodle. And she’s opening avenues of communications between students and staff as students find it easier to open up and share more honestly if they’re petting the dog instead of looking at an adult.

While the school expected the positive impact on the students, the difference she’s making with staff is an additional benefit. “Staff come and say they need some Doodle time. It’s self-care, and each staff member has their own relationship with her, either playing certain games or giving belly rubs.”

Reading to SSD DoodleIn a fun twist, it seems like Doodle’s presence in the school was foreshadowed the year she was born. SSD Doodle is part of the Outside the Lines litter, with siblings Smudge, Scribble, and Sketch. That year, 2019, the theme of the Dallastown Area Intermediate School’s memory book was “Outside the Lines.”

“Doodle makes every single person who comes into her presence feel like they’re important and that they belong,” said Beth.

For more information about Susquehanna Service Dogs and facility dogs or to apply for a facility dog, visit the SSD website.