University High School’s youngest employee can’t read, do math, or converse, but he can help students in ways teachers and counselors elude.
He can sit, stay, come and, most importantly, just be, a calming presence to an agitated or concerned student, or a non-threatening friend to others.
Bear, a mild-mannered 1-year-old sheepskin, started his rounds at University High School this summer as the Waco Independent School District’s first emotional support animal. While his specific duties and schedule are still evolving, the dog and his handler, English teacher and cheerleading sponsor Alyssa Grammer, are already becoming familiar sights in the gym and on the university hallways.
The humble bear has already won over the college cheerleaders as they train and prepare for the school year.
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“He’s her baby,” Grammer said. “After all, they want him to be part of their pyramid. They really adopted him.”
A bear and second dog planned for the Greater Waco Advanced Health Care Academy are the latest additions to the district’s mental health resources. Waco ISD this year added a licensed professional employee support consultant and is introducing a new social-emotional curriculum for students and employees.
The expanded resources are intended in part to address the emotional and psychological toll COVID-19 has taken on students, teachers and staff over the past two years, said Superintendent Susan Kincannon.
Emotional support animals add an often helpful component to working with students who are shy, withdrawn, troubled or struggling with trauma, said Rachelle Warren, assistant superintendent of student services and support.
“We tend to react differently when there’s a dog or an animal in the room. They can be really calming,” Warren said.
In the presence of a friendly, non-threatening dog, students sometimes open up and share what’s bothering them, or they find the interaction easier, she said.
Bear is owned and trainer by Buffalo-based Bella’s Buddies Inc., which has provided service dogs to schools, veterans’ hospitals and other organizations.
In fact, Kincannon knew of Bella’s Buddies and his K9U program from her years at Belton ISD when one of his dogs was helping students recover from a crisis situation.
Amanda Davis, a former homeroom teacher, and her husband Tom run Bella’s Buddies, they breed and train dogs, usually golden retrievers and goldendoodles, as support animals. They also train the dog handlers and attendants.
They have worked or plan to work with school districts in Central Texas in Belton, Gatesville, Bosqueville, Valley Mills and China Spring. Their dogs serve school programs for students with special needs, occupational or speech therapy, or specific counseling needs.
Davis said training begins early with puppies being raised in sensory environments to sharpen their alertness and then being selected for further instruction based on their temperament. At 12 weeks, Bear began social conditioning by being placed in an elementary school classroom. As he got older, he displayed the calming and companionable qualities that make him apt for emotional support work. Bear then learned the basic commands needed to work as an emotional support dog.
When Grammer volunteered to be a handler, she also volunteered for some training of her own. She learned the ins and outs of handling a dog: a basic vocabulary of commands including walk, sit, stay, come and go; how to read Bear’s behavior and moods; how to walk through crowds or deal with people nearby; Feeding; Irrigation; and general care.
Part of a handler’s job is setting the rules for the people who want to interact with the dog, including asking permission to pet, petting the dog’s shoulder or back rather than approaching it from the face, and gentle demeanor.
Grammer also had the home front and her 3-year-old German shepherd, Gigi, to think about. Luckily, the two dogs proved to be compatible and perhaps complementary.
“They get along great. Bär gets up at 6 a.m. every morning and Gigi usually sleeps until noon,” Grammer said, laughing.
Bär also supports the English teacher on her trips to the city. They take walks in Cameron Park before the temperature gets too high and sometimes go shopping.
“He loves going to Target,” she said.
Once classes begin, Bear stays with Grammer in her classroom and accompanies her to cheerleading drills and activities.
University Associate Principal Beth Brabham, who also volunteered and completed handler training, will take Bear when Grammer needs a break. Other teachers and students are being trained to work with Bear, and his duties and schedule are expanding, including appearances at football games and pep talks, Brabham said.
She said she envisions certain periods of time being set aside for counselors and students, and a quiet time in a quiet place will be an important part of Bear’s day.
Bear is expected to meet other students, teachers and parents during a University High open house on Thursday.