Pup gets an education along with students at Parish School
The most popular student at the Parish School looks a little different than her classmates.
This student has four legs, floppy ears and a tail.
Flight, a 3-month-old golden retriever Labrador mix, is going to school to learn the skills she will need to become an assistance dog, helping individuals with disabilities.
Teachers and administrators say the children are learning just as much from her as she is from them.
“The unforeseen benefits that we have experienced are beyond what we could have ever imagined,” said Heather Hillery, the teacher who came up with the idea. “We’ve been super lucky having this puppy on campus.”
Hillery is a speechlanguage pathologist who works with students with communication delays and learning differences at the Parish School, 11001 Hammerly Blvd.
She had wanted to raise an assistance dog and believed that students at the school would be the ideal
candidates to help train a special puppy.
Hillery approached head of school Nancy Bewley with the concept.
“I immediately said yes,” Bewley said.
“I like innovative programs and I like to use every avenue of learning.”
Looking for all possible ways to help students do their best is key at the Parish School, which educates children ages 2-12 who have special needs.
“We want to empower children,” Bewley said.
“We want them to experience a learning environment where they will thrive.
“We want them to become lifelong learners and we don’t want them to just grow, we want them to thrive.”
She is always on the lookout for new ideas to help the school achieve these goals.
“When we know something will benefit the kids, we can get it started right away,” she said.
“The quicker, the better. It’s all about being open to new ideas.”
Once Bewley gave the go-ahead, Hillery put in an application with Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit program that trains and places highly skilled assistance dogs with adults or children with disabilities, entirely free of charge.
The organization breeds Labrador and golden retriever puppies — and once they are ready to leave their mother, they are placed with volunteers for 14-to-18 months.
Volunteers incur the costs of raising the puppies and train them for the important jobs that await.
In the few weeks that Flight has been on the Parish School campus, Hillery said a positive impact has already been made in the classrooms.
She tells her students that they have an important responsibility raising the puppy and that they have to keep her calm by being peaceful themselves.
Students have told her that helping Flight has made it easier for them to stay calm too.
“They keep still; they make eye contact with her,” Hillery said. “This is powerful. It’s magic.”
She said many students at The Parish School exhibit signs of anxiety and emotional instability tied to their learning differences and difficulty communicating.
Flight, however, helps them find inner peace. Typically, after a few minutes sitting by her kennel, students rejoin the classroom ready to focus and participate in classroom activities.
The children are keeping a journal of Flight’s journey at the school.
They write article and stories about her and the puppy has even inspired artwork.
For students who often avoid writing and talking, the puppy has been the best possible muse, Hillery added.
“The children come home and talk about the puppy, when they used to not converse at all,” Hillery said.
“And they jump out of the car in the morning when they get to school.”
They were eager to see the puppy.
One fifth-grade student, Trey Bryant, 11, wrote a special edition of the class newspaper to tell everyone about Flight and what an important task raising an assistance dog can be.
“When I first saw her, I wanted to have her in my class all the time, because she is a special dog,” he said.
“I know that she will go to someone who loves her, and they will want to thank us for keeping Flight when she was a puppy.”
Flight will stay at the school until early November 2017 and then will be tested to see if she is a candidate for serving as an assistance dog.
“If she’s accepted, we’ve done our job,” Hillery said.
“Then, I will put my name in for another dog. I would absolutely do this again.”
Bewley added that she has noticed that Flight has been an asset at the school.
“It’s really been a transformation for our students,” she said.
“Animals bring out the best in people.
“Many children who struggle to communicate with humans are able to relax when they communicate with animals.”
Hillery hopes other area schools will consider raising service dogs.
“I would love to see other schools get on board with this,” she said.
“The benefits are just too numerous to talk about.”
For details on the school, call 713-467-4696 or go to www.parishschool. org.
Parish School teacher Heather Hillery and Flight, the service dog-in-training, share a teaching moment.