NORMAL, Il. – The newest staff member at High Road School turned out to be a real jack-of-all-trades.
“Chip” – as everyone calls him – cheerfully greets students as they arrive at the Jersey Avenue-school. He’s a vigilant hall monitor. He helps students with their reading, encourages them to exercise at recess, and he even sits in on parent meetings.
Chip works hard, but not for peanuts. “He likes dog biscuits better,” said JoAnn Ziegler, director at High Road School, who “hired” Chip last November and had the Yorkshire terrier trained as a therapy dog for her students who have learning, language, social and behavioral disabilities.
“Chip brings so much joy to our students, but he also provides them with emotional support and helps build their self-esteem,” Ziegler said. Studies show therapy dogs in schools help students to build social bonds, decrease errant behavior, and lower blood pressure, stress and anxiety.
“Chip is also an attentive listener. Students will often read to him,” Ziegler said. Reading to dogs is a research-proven strategy to help struggling readers overcome their fear of reading aloud. “Dogs don’t judge children who mispronounce words or stumble over sentences. Chip sits or lies down and just listens,” Ziegler said.
“JoAnn Ziegler has come up with another marvelous way to engage and motivate her special-needs students,” said Michael Kaufman, President and CEO of Specialized Education Services Inc. (SESI), which operates High Road school. “This school – and SESI schools nationwide – is gaining a reputation for their progressive, innovative approach to special education. Ideas like this are among the many reasons why.”
Ziegler chose the A.K.C-registered, tan-and-black Yorkie for his gentle temperament and hypoallergeniccotton-ball coat. She quickly enrolled Chip in an intensive, month-long service-dog boot camp at Angel K-9, a specialized training center based in n Ellicott City, Md.
“The key lessons for Chip were obedience and how to interact with children – who can become highly emotional at times – without overreacting. He’s exceptionally good at remaining calm no matter what’s going on around him,” Ziegler said. “It really impresses parents when they come to meet with me in my office.”
Ziegler also enlisted the help of 15-year-old Dustin Phillips – a student who took a keen interest in Chip from the puppy’s first day at school – and together they brought Chip to “puppy kindergarten” classes at a Bloomington Petco store.
Ziegler said she realized the 11.4-pound dog had a “special bond” with Dustin, who has now become Chip’s in-school trainer. “I helped train Chip to come, sit and lay down and to stay calm and pay attention,” said Dustin, who now has his sights set on dog-training as a side-job to a career as a chef. “It takes a lot of patience for both of us to work on his commands.”
Walking, feeding and grooming Chip is an earned-privilege for High Road students, so Dustin said he must finish his schoolwork and maintain good behavior to help train Chip each day. “It’s a terrific motivation for all our students,” said Ziegler. “But, Dustin and Chip seem to have the right energy. They just click together.”
Uneasy about coming to High Road School from Regional Alternative School 14-months ago, Dustin said working with Chip made the transition easier. “It was hard for me to come here, but working with Chip turned me around. He’s one of the things I like best about High Road. I’m passing all my classes and doing the best in math,” said Dustin.
Because Chip’s training and student-interactions can be so demanding, Ziegler said she learned it’s important for Chip to “take time off from work.” So, three-days a week, Chip heads off to a doggie-day-spa at Deenie’s Bed & Biscuit in Bloomington. “He gets to play with other dogs, go swimming, run, take long naps and just remember that he’s really a dog,” Ziegler said.
Learn more about the High Road School of Bloomington and about Specialized Education Services Inc. (SESI) at: www.sesi-schools.com.
Photo courtesy of Steve Smedley/The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Il.