Classroom Goes to the Dogs

 In News & Events

The Press Republican – 03/01/2009

Classroom goes to the dogs • Westport teacher gets students involved training therapy dogs for disabled
By RADHIKA MADANA MOHAN Contributing Writer

WESTPORT — “Bailey sit. Bailey stay.”

4th-grader holds Bailey's leadWestport Central School fourth-grader Thomas Maron waved his arm in short, firm gestures at a black Labrador retriever almost twice his size.

The dog sat obediently, looking up as she awaited another command. Maron’s classmates giggled, squealing, “Good girl, Bailey!” and patting her affectionately.

In the corner of the classroom, beaming proudly, sat teacher Shoshi Satloff.

For the past six years, the enrichment teacher and her fifth-grade students have walked the path of “puppy-dom,” raising and training young dogs for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. She expanded her efforts with Bailey, inviting fourth-graders to help train her as a therapy dog for a program called Therapy Dog International.

“We take (Bailey) out,” fourth-grader Mattea Veins explained. “We play with her until she’s tired, so she can concentrate during work time,”

“We give her commands, and if she doesn’t follow them, we don’t praise her by giving her treats or patting her,” Maron said.

PERSONAL REWARD Bailey is amazing, Satloff said.

“Once, a first-grader wanted to take her out, and so she had Bailey on the leash. I was watching the dog guide the girl away from a wet area in the hallway.”

Bailey and the fourth-graders were evaluated a few weeks ago, and Satloff said the head handler of Therapy Dog International “was very impressed.”

For Satloff, the class project is more of a personal reward — “a personal satisfaction that I’ve helped someone and having my kids understand the importance of helping someone.”

Her job — and that of her students — is to teach the dog good manners and a few basic commands. Making sure the puppy is properly socialized is very important, the teacher said.

“Like for Bailey, my fourth-graders would expose her to crowds, people. You know how kids are, they would pat the dog. It’s just a matter of the dog getting used to such environments and not be distracted.”

For her first assignment, Satloff nurtured and trained a black Lab named Nicky, who was just 8 weeks old when she arrived.

“Nicky was not only mine. My kindergartners, we co-owned her,” the teacher said.

The students were responsible for feeding the dog and “taking her outside to get busy, including cleaning up after her,” Satloff said.

They practiced simple obedience with basic commands such as sit and stay. The classroom was “puppy proof,” with a child-safety gate to prevent the dog from roaming and getting into mischief.

“Nicky, of course, came home with me each day, and I continued training her as well as took her to Guiding Eye classes.

JOY AND SADNESS The journey raising a puppy, Satloff said, produces the most beautiful feeling in the world.

However, she bonds deeply with her pups, and when they part ways at the puppy graduation ceremony, she said, it “is the most difficult thing in the world.

“But as difficult as it is, you remember why the whole endeavor was (undertaken) in the first place.”

Nicky was with Satloff and her students for about 15 months. The dog passed her preliminary tests and was admitted to the next level of training but was then released due to high distractibility.

“Maybe that was the natural result of months in a kindergarten,” Satloff chuckled.

Instead, the dog was chosen by the Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, trained as bomb sniffer and is now at work in Bangkok, Thailand.

Satloff has since trained two other dogs, including McKenna, who to her delight went on to serve as a guide dog for a deaf and blind minister in California.

“I think (Satloff) is very passionate,” said Guiding Eyes for the Blind for the Blind Regional Marketing Manager Linda Damato. “It does take a lot of commitment, and she just has it.”

Satloff also had another black Lab named Sonja under her care who left on Jan. 24 and is now in harness training.

Bailey in classroomThe teacher is sure that dog will certainly be “going places.

“She is very bold, brazen and has a strong sense of self-confidence.”

Satloff’s home is rather empty without Sonja.

“But I’m proud for my contribution for her as a working dog,” she said.

Her fourth-graders feel the same way.

“I feel good that “¦ we are able to help someone,” Veins said.