By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Facility dog Bandit walks into a classroom at John F. Kennedy Catholic School and the smiles of teachers and students are big. The students wave at Bandit before returning to their assignments while the dog walks around the classroom. His handler, Emma Wolf, gives commands to Bandit and tells him when it is time to go to another room.
Wolf, a student specialist, has Bandit by her side as she teaches social emotional learning (SEL) in classrooms. This includes lessons on how to manage feelings, conflict resolution, friendship skills, careers and internet safety. She also provides individual and small-group sessions, creates safety plans for students at risk and offers outside resources for families.
Bandit, who arrived in March, is the first facility dog in a Catholic school in the Diocese of Davenport, said JFK Principal Chad Steimle. “I had read about facility dogs in schools for a number of years. They help reduce stress of students and staff. They help shy students open up and they can help relieve anxiety. Students can even read to dogs and improve their reading confidence and ability.”
Steimle received favorable input about the idea of an on-site facility dog and talked with Wolf, who did research. Then they looked into policies and protocols. “We were able to move ahead within a year’s time and were lucky enough to receive Bandit so soon,” Steimle said.
Wolf researched equine assisted psychotherapy for her capstone project and shadowed a therapy dog in the Bettendorf Community School District. Therapy dogs serve a specific person and generally provide comfort and love in a variety of settings: schools, hospitals, nursing homes, etc. Therapy dogs are certified and tested and commanded by one person. They typically work a few hours every week.
Although not certified, facility dogs are highly trained in specific tasks to assist professionals working with a wide range of children and a wide variety of emotions. Facility dogs accept commands from multiple handlers/teachers who have received training, Wolf said. They may provide physical comfort and can be of help to an individual in crisis. Facility dogs work a full week and are considered part of the staff.
Wolf received her training through the Operation Schoolhouse program of Warriors’ Best Friend in Missouri. The program trains and places dogs for a school setting, she said. The organization also provided training within the school building. Three other JFK staff have been trained to handle Bandit when needed.
Bandit’s job is to help students and staff relax and feel calm. He serves as a model to teach respect, responsibility, empathy, compassion, tolerance and acceptance, Wolf said. He can be a presence to a student who has worries, a friend who does not judge, helps with self-esteem and confidence and brings a smile to others, she noted.
“I will incorporate Bandit in some of my lessons to help provide an example that the kids can see or connect with right then and there,” Wolf said. Bandit can pick up when a student or teacher needs a little more attention and stays beside that person. “Depending on the energy level of the room he’ll continue to make his rounds, play with his ball or plop down and just take it all in. Occasionally he’ll fall asleep.” He even attends staff meetings.
Students and staff have enjoyed interacting with Bandit. Someone might say, “Oh, I feel better, I needed that!” or “I need to pet Bandit, it’s a crummy day.” John F. Kennedy’s Home and School organization provided funding to purchase Bandit and some supplies. Some families donated other items for Bandit.
He will continue to reside with Wolf and during the summer she will research additional ways that Bandit might benefit the school. “The kids and staff love him. He definitely helps a room relax.” The eighth-grade class wrote a song about Bandit, the idea of student Luke Jobgen. He calls the dog his hero. Fellow classmate Carver Gile said Bandit helps calm down students. “He lets me pet him and he licks my hand. I love Bandit.”
Bandit is “a goofy sweet boy, and he brings so much joy,” Wolf said. “It is in his nature, or instinct, to protect. There have been a number of individuals who have commented that they feel safer having him here at the school because they know that he would protect us.”