When Gus was a puppy going through the battery of tests to become an Occupaws guide dog, his veterinarian noticed cataracts in his eyes that made him ineligible to continue.
But that was just a detour in Gus’ career of service: The lumbering yellow lab earned the Canine Good Citizenship Award from the American Kennel Club, and since December he’s been enjoying celebrity status as the dog-in-residence at Fox Prairie Elementary School.
Gus’ human is Fox Prairie reading specialist Marilee Cronin, whose popularity has “shot through the roof” since she first started bringing Gus to school before Christmas break. Cronin worked with school psychologist Sara Durtschi to introduce Gus to students, and she said Gus has been helpful to students in ways a human might not be able to.
“Dogs have a calming factor,” Durtschi said. “When students get really heightened with their behavior and they can’t say in words what they need, it brings them down a little bit and then they’re able to problem-solve. Petting Gus or doing an errand (with him) takes them out of it.”
Gus comes to school
Cronin and Durtschi had seen research about the benefits of using a dog in a school setting and had been talking about bringing Gus in “for a while” before his December debut.
“One counselor we researched who started bringing her dog started noticing an uptick in student engagement from reading to him,” Durtschi said. “(And it helped) kids who sometimes emotionally could use a little extra something.”
They got buy-in from principal Krista Huntley Rogers, whose experience at the policy level of the district helped them figure out how to navigate potential issues like allergies and parent concerns.
They sent out school-wide permission slips – “We’ve never had permission slips come back that fast,” Cronin said –and introduced Gus at parent-teacher meetings.
“We were willing to try anything to help the kids out and be successful at school and if that means a break with a dog, why not?” Rogers said. “We have a very innovative staff and we try to support them.”
Gus made his debut the day before Christmas break, and then started coming to school more regularly when staff noticed his impact. One of the reasons he’s now a daily fixture is that students, teachers and even parents started to seek Gus out to help with problems only to find out he was at home that day.
And it didn’t hurt that Gus made his opinion known: he would follow Cronin around all morning on work days, hoping for the chance to come to school, staring accusingly through the front door when she left him behind.
Now he’s at the school most every day, and he’s become enmeshed in the Fox Prairie culture.
The district-wide Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) program incentivizes good behavior with rewards, and Gus-centric prizes have proven quite popular.
Kids earn Fox Four tickets for exemplifying the four school values: “Be Safe, Be Kind, Do Your Part and Speak Up.” Even though a “Lunch Bunch with Gus” is a higher-ticket item, Cronin says Gus is “booked up through next week.”
A helpful friend
Cronin regularly uses Gus in her work as a reading specialist with kids who need extra help.
“(Dogs are) not going to be judgmental, tell you you said a word wrong, tell you their opinion,” Cronin explained. “It’s why people like to be able to come home to their dogs. (It’s) something that people can’t offer.”
Students will plop down next to Gus excited to do the work they’re regularly assigned just because they’re in the presence of the affable lab.
“He’s pretty passive, not an alpha dog,” Cronin explains. “He’s just going to kind of lay there.”
Durtschi says that just as kids are more comfortable reading to a dog, they’re more likely to share their feelings.
“Sometimes when kids are kinda struggling emotionally, it’s a calming factor,” Durtschi said. ‘Like, ‘Tell Gus what’s going on.’”
And Gus’ passivity can be helpful in showing a student the impact of their own behavior, especially at times of heightened emotion when they might not be “the most open to hearing from adults.”
“I’ve seen a student who was kind of animated and Gus’ reaction was to kind of just move himself away,” Cronin said. “The teacher was able to point out the change in Gus and the student recognized that and was able to change his tone and almost apologize and fix it.”
The teacher was able to connect the situation to how the student’s behavior might affect other kids, and a student who was otherwise struggling to regulate emotions was able to apologize to Gus.
Cronin said that even though she know Gus would be great at the job, she’s “really proud he can be used this way.”
“It’s neat to be able to offer just something that makes kids smile,’ Cronin said. “The bigger fifth-graders, where they’re kind of ‘over it,’ they’re not over Gus.”