BUNKER HILL — It was a typical Monday morning inside teacher Shayla Elmore’s special education classroom at Maconaquah Elementary School. Some students were busy reading books on nearby laptops, while others quietly used fraction blocks to practice their math skills.
And then suddenly there was a burst of laughter.
“Mack, over there, Mackie, here boy, here!” one of the students yelled.
A couple moments later, Mack — a 7-month-old Labradoodle — brought the boy a stuffed animal and dropped it on the carpet in front of him as if to say, "Throw it again."
Mack is the classroom’s new therapy dog and a recent addition to the Maconaquah community, and Elmore — who is also Mack’s owner — said she hopes the dog will be a mainstay for years to come.
“This whole thing kind of got started with me talking to a couple of my co-workers,” Elmore said. “We have a reading therapy dog already at the school, so that need was already being met. We saw the success there, so I wanted to see the success of having a dog who works with students with emotional and behavioral needs too.”
After a lot of community support, Mack was donated to the school earlier this year by a Peru-based construction business named Fewell and Co., and Elmore said it’s been full speed ahead ever since.
“This has really been a year-long process [of trying to get a therapy dog],” Elmore said. “I got him as an 8-week-old puppy, and it’s just been about training him and getting him used to what his role will be in the classroom. He is in obedience training right now, but because he’s still very much a puppy, he only comes with me a couple days a week right now. The end goal though is to get him to come just about every day.”
And the days Mack is around the students, those are some of the best days, Elmore said smiling. She even admits she’s seen a distinct and positive change in her students’ personalities too, which she attributes to Mack.
“The kids love him,” she said. “They ask me every day if he’s going to be coming, and I think some of the greatest moments are those times that I necessarily haven’t been looking. He likes to be on the kids’ feet when they’re working, and he’s just that little reminder for them to keep going.”
Mack is also always ready to lend a listening ear or a warm paw too, Elmore noted.
“Having him in our classroom serves so many purposes,” she said. “A lot of the kids I work with, they have a hard time making friends or keeping those friends, and Mack is an easy-conversation starter for them to open up to their peers about. He’s also just naturally friendly and is really good at meeting the kids at their different levels. In moments of frustration or aggravation, he’s always there and helps the students self-soothe.”
And though there is a lot of research about the benefits of therapy dogs for areas like reading, Elmore said Mack is kind of leading the charge when it comes to the use of classroom therapy dogs for students who have emotional or behavioral issues.
“Therapy dogs are definitely gaining in popularity these days,” Elmore noted. “Where you once just saw them in places like hospitals, several schools across the country have adopted similar therapy programs. So this just keeps us on the cutting edge of what’s new and innovative in education as well as providing what’s best for the kids.”
Danielle Calisto, an instructional assistant in Elmore’s class, agreed, saying she has personally seen fewer meltdowns and quicker recovery times among the students when Mack is present.
“It’s just so invaluable having him here with us,” she said. “He’s comforting, and he’s good at cuddling when the kids need him for that too.”
But perhaps no description of Mack is more suitable than that of 8-year-old Nevaeh Mongosa, who spent several minutes Monday just petting the dog across the back and behind the ears.
“He’s just so playful,” she said laughing. “He just makes me feel happy. He just makes me feel special, and he makes me feel like I’m at home playing with my dogs. And that is how I feel about Mack.”