No current teachers or staff members at Northeast High School have tails.
That is about to change.
Therapy dogs Elsie and Nova are nearing their certification, and once that’s complete — and the school board officially approves it — the pooches will go to work within Northeast’s halls.
Emily Schulz, a special education teacher at the school, purchased Elsie from a breeder in January 2020 and will be her handler at school. Nova’s owner and handler is instructional coach Aubree Tanzillo. They are both donating the use of their dogs for the therapy dog program.
“Aubree and I didn’t come to the idea together,” Schulz said. “We actually each approached our principal (Jennifer Huling) at different times about the idea. Then, when we realized we were both working towards this common goal, we came together to train and get certified.”
Training for the dogs was provided by Jim Stenfeldt of CM Academy in Davenport.
The two pooches will join a therapy dog already at work in the Northeast Elementary building.
Elsie is Schulz’s personal pet, but she knew right away Elsie could help at the school in addition to being a member of her family.
“I deal with students who are struggling in classes, frustrated with the tasks at hand, and worried about seeming different than their peers,” Schulz said. She believes therapy dogs like Elsie and Nova can help.
“Our students at the secondary level are showing a need for emotional regulation,” Schulz said. “As a therapy dog, she will be able to help regulate these emotions for students and allow them to continue to learn.”
Schulz said she’s also seen COVID-19’s emotional toll on students and believes the dogs can make spirits higher.
“I am co-teaching in one class of senior English this year, and we have discussed how the seniors have had a different attitude toward school this year,” she said. “These students are struggling to enjoy their senior year because of the circumstances around COVID-19. I regularly think about how Elsie could bring joy and emotional regulation for these students this year.”
Schulz envisions Elsie working primarily with special education students, and Nova with the office and general education students.
“The dogs will never be together throughout the day,” Schulz said. “Aubree and I are always in different places. Both dogs will be used to calm, comfort, and de-escalate students as needed.”
Elsie is a golden doodle, with 75% of her makeup being poodle. That, Schulz said, makes her hypoallergenic, so students with pet dander aversions can be around her with no worries.
“My sister is highly allergic to dander, whether its cats, dogs, horses, etc.,” Schulz told the Northeast School Board at its December meeting. “She has been around Elsie and had no issues. We are looking at a pretty good situation there.”
Nova, however, is a charcoal-colored lab and does shed.
“(Tanzillo) will make sure that every event Nova participates the students in there are allergy free,” Schulz said.
Joining the workforce
If all goes according to plan with their certifications, both dogs will be working in the school this spring.
To integrate the dogs into everyday life at Northeast, staff members will receive training, said superintendent Neil Gray, who said he has experience with therapy dog programs in his career. He said it will be important to go through the “what ifs” and help both students and staff understand how the dogs will work.
“As a special education teacher, I travel around to a lot of different rooms … I see Elsie going with me, at least until other staff members are trained with the dogs,” Schulz said.
Schulz worked closely with Maquoketa Superintendent Chris Hoover and other administrators there. The Maquoketa district installed a therapy dog program last year in its elementary school, and Northeast is taking some pages out of its book.
“Maquoketa has a check-out system for the dogs, and anyone can check out the dogs, and when they are done using the dogs they can return them to me or (Tanzillo),” Schulz said.
The dogs can serve a multitude of purposes, depending on student need, Schulz said. Dogs can be a patient, non-judgmental listener when a student reads out loud, or they can be a soft, reassuring presence during heightened emotional times.
Each time a dog will be checked out, the user will fill out a survey on its performance, so Schulz and Tanzillo can focus in on areas that require extra training.
Schulz said both dogs still have things to learn. But, Elsie has mastered general obedience commands, knows when she puts on her vest, she’s “all business, Schulz said.
“She has also learned to be tolerant of pain, ignore distractions, and place on command — like go to her bed or a designated spot.” Schulz said.
Schulz said Elsie will most likely start attending for half days either at the end of January or February. Nova, she said, will be ready shortly after that.
At its December meeting, the Northeast School Board:
• Elected Rich Krogman to return as board president. Shawn Rathje was named the board’s vice president.
• Approved the appointment of Tina Marx as board secretary/treasurer.
• Approved Lynch Dallas Law Firm as the district’s legal counsel.
• Approved First Central State Bank as the district’s official depository.
• Approved the personnel report that included the hiring of Keitha Kjergaard as assistant high school girls basketball coach, Michael Hansen as assistant high school girls basketball coach, and Shana Johnson as cheerleading advisor.
• Approved a sharing agreement with Central DeWitt for concurrent credit classes including soil science, public speaking, advanced animal science, agribusiness, horticulture, plant biology, health, architectural drafting, gas metal arc welding and shielded metal arc welding. Northeast pays Central DeWitt a flat rate per student per class.
• Approved the addition of a high school public speaking course starting the second semester.