If you get a chance to visit The Hill School of Wilmington this year, you may see a new face (and tail) roaming the halls. This year, the school added a facility dog to its staff, DECLAN. Read an interview with DECLAN's handler and Hill School teacher, Heather Schild below.
Tell us a little about DECLAN, her age, breed.
DECLAN just turned 3 on August 11th. She is a Golden Retriever and was bred and raised with other service dogs in training at paws4people. An interesting fact is that DECLAN’s sister, DEWEY, is also a Facility Dog at GLOW Academy.
Whose decision was it to add DECLAN to the HSW “staff”?
I have a friend of the family who is a dean at UNCW. He was telling me about the terrific program the university has where students in the College of Health and Human Services, are able to take classes for credit to learn about the importance of Service Dogs and also learn about the intensive training process these dogs go through, starting at just 3 days old! The students in this program are able to do internships with paws4people, who are based here in Wilmington. He shared with me how most of their dogs become service dogs for people with disabilities, but how a small group of them go on to be Facility Dogs. These Facility Dogs may work in schools, doctors' offices, with the police department, etc. I started doing research on how beneficial Facility Dogs are in schools to mitigate feelings of anxiety and frustration, as well as to motivate students to meet and exceed goals. Dogs love unconditionally and live life with no judgment. I have seen in my own life, how dogs are able to help create feelings of serenity and acceptance. When I spoke to Ms. Harrell about my idea, she was immediately on board. It has been a very long process and she has been supportive each step of the way. We spoke about it at faculty meetings, as we wanted to be sure the whole staff was on the same page. It was truly a group decision to include a dog like DECLAN on our staff here.
What was involved in DECLAN’s training? Was she trained when you got her or did you decide to train her specifically to be a facility dog?
DECLAN started her training at 3 days old. She spent the first few months of her life at paws4people, learning how to sit, stay, leave treats, and many more simple commands. She then went with her littermates to a prison in West Virginia, where paws4people trainers work with inmates to help them train each dog. Each puppy is assigned to an inmate who is with them 24 hours a day. DECLAN stayed at the prison until she was about 1 year old. She then came back to Wilmington and began training with students in the Service Dog program at UNCW. Paws4people wants to be very sure they are making good teams with their dogs and handlers. They actually say they let the dogs pick who they would like to work with. I worked with 4 dogs before DECLAN “picked” me. Each dog was wonderful and would have brought their own special personality to the Hill School, but DECLAN is the perfect fit. Since DECLAN and I have been paired up, we have completed about 50 hours of training together. She came for sleepovers and spent time with my family, and our own dog, Winston. People often laugh when I explain what we do in the training sessions because, truth be told, DECLAN is amazingly well-trained and consistent. It’s me who usually messes up!
Tell me about a typical day at HSW for DECLAN - what are her responsibilities? Will she be there every day?
DECLAN will come to school with me every day. She will spend her mornings greeting students at the door and then come with me to my classroom. She will work with students during classes, and also during breaks. When needed, she and I will be able to work with students who are struggling or feeling down that day. She also is able to be part of celebrations, such as when goals are met. She walks with us when we go out at the break. When our morning students leave, DECLAN will be able to nap in her kennel. During this time, she will have her vest off, letting her know she is not “working”, and can rest and relax. When our afternoon students arrive, DECLAN will be at the door, greeting them as they enter. She will spend the afternoon in much the same way she spent the morning. After school, DECLAN will return home with me, take her vest and harness off and become a family pet. She will spend her evenings getting her belly rubbed and chasing tennis balls.
Does DECLAN have any special skills, especially surrounding her “duties” as a facility dog?
DECLAN loves to wave and shake hands with students. She is able to pick up her leash and hand it to me when it gets tangled around her legs. One of the things DECLAN will spend a lot of time doing is listening to students read. She reaches out to be sure she is touching them somehow. She may scoot over to put a paw on their arm, or rest her head in their lap. She loves to perform the, “visit” command, where she places her head in someone’s lap to be pet. There are about 100 commands DECLAN has been trained to do. One of the commands she is quite good at is when I tell her to “cuddle”. She will curl around the person she is with and essentially hugs them, resting her weight on them to help create feelings of calm. Something that continues to amaze me, is that I have seen DECLAN see, on her own, a child is struggling, and without even being told, she will place her head in their lap, or try to cuddle with them. She is incredibly intuitive!
Do you have any fun stories about DECLAN to share?
DECLAN absolutely LOVES tennis balls! One of her favorite things to do is to collect all of the tennis balls in our house. She methodically picks up each one and puts it under the cushion of her bed. When she is satisfied that all tennis balls have been found, she lays on top of the bed. I can’t imagine it is very comfortable, but it seems to make her happy. When she wants to play with one, she tries out a few, before deciding on the perfect one to use. When she has run around enough, the ball goes right back under her bed! She won’t be able to play with tennis balls when she is working at school, but when her vest is removed, she knows it’s playtime!