New therapy puppy at Bates Middle School helps students with autism come out of their shells

Everyone's best friend

BY KAYLA ROBINS
kayla@theitem.com
Posted 2/3/19

Bates Middle School, like any other public school, keeps safety a top priority by requiring all staff members to wear ID badges - whether that staff member has two or four legs makes no difference.

Kelly Snell has been bringing Bantam, a …

This item is available in full to subscribers

New therapy puppy at Bates Middle School helps students with autism come out of their shells

Everyone's best friend

Posted

Bates Middle School, like any other public school, keeps safety a top priority by requiring all staff members to wear ID badges - whether that staff member has two or four legs makes no difference.

Kelly Snell has been bringing Bantam, a 12-week-old Miniature Schnauzer, to her special education classroom every day for the past couple weeks. Bantam may still be a therapy dog-in-training, but he has already made a marked impact on her 11 students, many of whom are on the autism spectrum.

"They're getting off their Chromebooks, and they're more interested in training the dog than being on their computers," Snell said.

Her students, who are in all middle school grades, had recently been getting visits on Mondays from Sparky, a therapy dog with Paws for Friendship, a local branch of the national nonprofit, and his handler, Dennie Sides. They didn't ever want to read with her or other adults, Snell said.

They would read with Sparky.

"We were amazed. They just read with fluency and expression with the dogs," she said. "And it was just so amazing, so I talked to my principal, Dr. [Ayesha] Hunter. And we were both so happy to realize we both had always dreamed of having a therapy dog program."

Sides has a standard Schnauzer, a breed that appealed to Snell because "they're very smart, and they don't shed so we don't have to worry about allergies."

Bantam - named after the school's mascot - will only grow to be about 20 pounds, is "spunky but laid back, and he's really good with kids." When he was not being doted on all over campus - he visits other classrooms - on Friday morning by being carried and hugged and just generally spoiled in the cutest way, he bounced around the courtyard and up and down the halls less like a dog, more like a baby goat. Bounding to the left and right while making circles and teething on anything he could fit into his tiny mouth.

Just like other students at Bates, Bantam is learning.

"He has to go to puppy classes to learn good puppy manners, and then he has to go to a good citizens class and learn to behave," Snell said. "And, when he's 1 year old, he'll be given a test for therapy dog certification and via Paws for Friendship."

The dog will have to take a 10-part test. To help him prepare, Snell's students are training him.

Isaiah Brown said he likes to take Bantam on walks outside and play fetch.

The benefits are mutual. Bantam needs to be trained. Snell's students are learning to express their emotions more, to read, to take responsibility for duties such as taking Bantam potty.

Bantam helps more than Snell's students. Some days, nothing makes a bad day better than hugging a puppy.

"Middle school is a terrible age to be. It is," Snell said. "When I'm on cafeteria duty, the children who may not be the most popular children come up and talk to Bantam and talk to me. And it's really good for them. It's really difficult to socialize for some teenagers, and so the dog just loves you for whoever you are. They don't care if you're socially awkward or whatever or if you're the most popular kid in school or not. They just love everyone."

Students throughout the school love Bantam. Snell's students love Bantam. She said teachers even come in and ask to hold him and hug him.

"We had one instance where a child was sent to the principal's office, and the child came in very agitated and very angry. And he walked over to Bantam and started talking to him and interacting with him, and he completely forgot why he was there. And he started talking to Dr. Hunter about his dogs. So that gave them something in common to talk about. He was over his agitation," Snell said. "And it was just someone in school, not in my class."

Before Sparky and Bantam ever came to Bates, Snell's students wouldn't read. Not because they don't know how.

On Friday, Mason DuBose sat in a red bean bag chair, holding "If You Give A Dog A Donut." Bantam sat at his feet, playing with a toy and the boy's legs.

Adults he knew and strangers with cameras sat near.

"Are you recording now? You're recording?" he asked.

"Yah, we are."

"OK, good," Mason said, opening the book. "Let's do this."

He read each page out loud, taking time to show the pictures to Bantam before turning the page. After he finished, two more students took turns reading.

As one of their classmates, Kristian Brown, put it, "He's the best puppy in the world."