VIDEO: Alternative campus goes to dogs

Published 10:54 am Tuesday, May 27, 2008

By Sherry Koonce

The News staff writer

NEDERLAND —Three years ago when Karen Bussell started thinking outside the box, looking for a unique way to reach students attending Nederland’s Alternative Campus, no one could have guessed how quickly the campus would go to the dogs.

The new staff member hired to help the students through a troubled day was unlike any other. He had a penchant for working from his house, required incentives before taking on a new task, and worse yet, he enjoyed pawing the students.

Good thing the new staff member agreed to work pro bono.

“When I told Mrs. Krohn that I’d like to do things differently, little did she know I’d ask to put a dog on my staff,” Bussell, the alternative school’s principal said.

Since Prince Dakota of Sheila Court, a lovable big Airedale Terrier, joined the staff, the students have learned to take valuable life’s lessons from their canine friend.

“We could not have handpicked a better dog for the job,” Bussell said. “Since he came here, there have been more smiles, more laughter, more trust, and a better rapport between faculty and students.”

Called Dakota for short, the wire-haired terrier has become a fixture around the campus. His obedience training is incorporated into the student’s curriculum, while his affectionate smile and unconditional love is often used to help students with anger management, or to soothe frayed nerves.

A sixth-grade student attending classes at the campus said he’d recently had a bad day and was experiencing difficulty dealing with feelings of anger. His teachers suggested he go outside and spend some time with Dakota.

“They told me to sit outside and pet the dog. It worked because I came back inside with a better attitude and ready to do my work. Dakota has a way of keeping me calm,” the youngster said.

Another student, a 10th grader who had been at the campus for about three weeks, said she enjoyed working with Dakota, and thought most of the students were able to see the correlation between the dog’s obedience training and the rules set forth by their parents and teachers.

“I will do much more at my house now. I learned that concept from working with the dog,” she said.

The students begin their day watching Dakota demonstrate the art of being a good canine citizen. Both students and Dakota stand at attention to say the pledge, and then bow their heads for a moment of silence.

The students participate in Dakota’s morning obedience training, often imparting their own life’s lessons from the activity, Bussell said.

“The relation between his obedience and the kids’ obedience is a wonderful correlation,” Bussell said.

While the children are studying, Dakota has the run of the building —often stopping by a desk to help turn the pages of dog-eared books, or sitting patiently by a student’s side while lessons are absorbed.

The students helped build Dakota’s dog house, called Dakota’s Den, and are currently helping to construct a grooming table for their favorite canine friend.

Another of Dakota’s duties is to hold counseling sessions.

“Sometimes the kids just need to talk, and they’ll talk to him when they won’t talk to anyone else, Bussell said.

Recently, the district gave Dakota an e-mail address so students can write anonymously about what is bothering them. The children’s concerns are answered by certified counselors.

Dakota also has an on-line diary on the district’s Web page.

“We tell his experiences at the alternative school and try to relate some of the things the kids go through,” Ashley Massey, one of the alternative campus instructors, said.

Massey has been involved in the campus’ pet therapy program since day one, when she traveled to Louisiana with Bussell to look at a litter of Airedales that had been advertised for sale.

Though they were not initially looking for a dog with traits similar to the students’ — stubborn, hardheaded and mischievous — after exhaustive research the instructors thought an Airedale might work.

“An Airedale is highly intelligent and does not shed. That was important because sometimes students are allergic to dogs,” Bussell said.

Massey said she knew Dakota was the right dog for the job when he stood back and waited, then moseyed over to the school’s principal.

“He just plopped his paw right on her leg,” Massey said.

Dakota started to school when he was just 10 weeks old and weighed 10 pounds. Now, at 2 1/2 years old, and 100 pounds, the larger than normal sized Airedale has been a hit among the students.

Though most are sent to the campus only a few days after committing minor infractions, the short stay is often long enough to gain a new best friend.

“Many of our students after leaving here and going back to their regular campuses, will come back just to visit Dakota, or to bring him treats,” Bussell said.

The district’s pet therapy program has been so successful that other schools are inquiring about starting their own, Bussell said.

The program has also been featured in a PowerPoint presentation for the Nederland City Council, the PTA, Rotary Club, and at the Texas Association for Alternative Schools in Austin.

“This program has really worked. As soon as Dakota walked in the door and I saw the kids’ reaction to him and his to theirs, a whole new world was opened up over here,” Massey said.

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