Four-legged therapy in local schools
Special to the Times
Stress, anxiety and other emotions are common among students and teachers as school is again underway. But Gunnison Middle School (GMS) has a new way of dealing with them.
Graeden, a 5-month-old Newfoundland puppy, is training at GMS to become the Gunnison Watershed RE1J School District’s first therapy dog. Taking this new journey one paw at a time alongside his owner and adopted mother, GMS eighth-grade language arts teacher Molly Childerston, the endearing duo are implementing the program.
Though it appears effortless to walk an adorable puppy into schools, the journey has been strenuous for Childerston. She had her first therapy dog when she worked for Jefferson County School District in 2002. Odin — a rescued Newfoundland — was adopted and trained by Childerston to help students at her school.
“I remember walking into my classroom and seeing a student under my desk with Odin next to her as she learned English,” Childerston recalled. “She was from Saudi Arabia. To see Odin helping her feel confident with learning was amazing.”
The GMS teacher herself remembers meeting a therapy dog in high school. Childerston recalled her librarian, Wendy White, and yellow lab, Libby, fondly. It was because of White that Childerston became passionate about having her own therapy dog.
When Childerston transferred to GMS, she introduced the idea of a therapy dog to her school’s principal, current RE1J Superintendent Doug Tredway.
“It just started as casual conversation about her own dogs,” Tredway said about when he first was approached with the idea.
Having never heard of a therapy dog before, Childerston offered more information to Tredway as research became available. However, not until last school year, after the passing of Odin, did Childerston begin to make headway with a therapy dog program. She compiled 120 pages of research and presented the information to Tredway.
“I knew once I gave her the head nod she was going to give 100 percent because that is what she does,” Tredway said.
With a green light, Childerston was then tasked with finding a puppy.
When she stumbled upon Moore Newfies — a breeder in Grand Junction — Childerston knew it would be the perfect match. Yet, she became worried when the first few litters did not take, wondering if it was the right time.
“After I met the Moores and their Newfies I knew I had to believe in the process,” Childerston said. When the next litter was confirmed, preparations began.
Dog beds, kennels and toys filled Childerston’s house as her and husband Rob pondered the perfect name for their new addition. The Childerstons were set on naming the puppy Noble — but in the Gaelic translation to honor Molly Childerston’s aunt who had passed.
When discovering the Gaelic translation of Noble was “Grady,” Rob Childerston balked.
“We are not having a ‘Grady’ because it sounds too much like Tom Brady, and we are Broncos fans,” he said. Ultimately, they agreed the puppy would be named Graeden.
Childerston was ecstatic when she brought her “big snuggle-bear” Graeden home in June to begin training as a registered therapy team through Pet Partners. To become certified, the duo must pass the highest level of clearance through Pet Partners. The program will take 18 months, but until then Graeden may walk the halls with teachers and student volunteers.
In order to be a therapy dog, Graeden must be able to be commanded by others in the building so he can travel where he is needed without Childerston.
Noelia Espinoza, an eighth-grade student, has been volunteering with Childerston since July through the teacher’s Summer Experience class, which involved helping train Graeden.
“There is so much more love because of Graeden,” Espinoza said about dynamics in the school.
Childerston said the change in the school is directly related to the fact that students, like Espinoza, help train Graeden. Staff are seeing a difference too.
“You can see how excited the kids are to be around a dog, and it makes you excited too,” said GMS Principal Todd Witzel, who had heard of therapy dog programs and is glad to see the local one in action.
Tredway is just as thrilled.
“The possibilities are exciting,” he said. “It’s about the passion (Childerston) has brought, and the love she has. It’s contagious.”