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She arrives at school bright and early each morning to greet parents and children as they come through the door. Contrary to what you may think, she’s not the principal or a teacher. She’s Gracie the comfort dog.
The 16-month-old Golden Retriever now has nearly six months on the job at Trinity Lutheran School in Davenport, Iowa, under her belt.
“She just intuitively knows that her job is to help the children,” says principal Bill Meyer. “She very quickly has tuned in to kids and their needs.”
A new breed of service canines referred to as comfort dogs are beginning to pop up at schools across the country. Certified as a therapy dog, Gracie was trained through the Lutheran Church Charities in Illinois.
According to Tim Hetzner, the organization's president, prisoners train the canines for eight or nine months to be service dogs. Then, depending on where they’ll ultimately be placed, the dogs spend an additional four to six weeks learning the comfort dog portion of their job. In Gracie’s case, she learned to work with children of all ages.
LCC also trains dogs to do ministry work and help out in disasters, like last year’s devastating tornadoes in Joplin, Mo. “We’re having a hard time keeping up with the growth,” Hetzner says.
Gracie lives with a Trinity preschool teacher. Each morning, the two head for school, which serves children from preschool through eighth grade.
Gracie’s day often starts by helping a preschool boy who has problems with separation anxiety. The first time Gracie heard the boy crying, “she sat down next to him and nuzzled her head beside him,” Meyer says.
Before Gracie arrived on the scene, the principal would often spend 30 minutes each morning consoling the boy, but with his canine companion’s help, “he’s able to reengage a whole lot more quickly. If she hears somebody crying, and she’s here in my office, she will stand up, look at me and want to go.”
In addition to helping kids cope with their emotions, Gracie’s no slouch when it comes to academics. The comfort dog will often sit with kids who are struggling to read aloud.
“A dog isn’t going to judge whether you make a mistake or not,” Meyer says. “The benefit is for the child. Because Gracie is there, they feel more comfortable, so they read and practice and get better.”
When she’s done with story time, Gracie gets to have some fun. She's still a youngster, after all.
“One of her commands is to ‘go play,’ ” Meyer says. “She goes out with upper-grade students to run and play along with the kids. She still has that puppy-ness in her.” You can see Gracie at work in this video from WTKR.
If there are a lot of kids who want to pet her, “she tends to just lay down and say, ‘I’ll give you more of my body to pet,’ ” Meyer says.
Nearly all of Gracie’s care is donated. Village Vets in Davenport takes care of her medical needs free of charge and helped get her food donated through one of its suppliers. A local groomer keeps Gracie looking beautiful with monthly baths and nail trims as a goodwill gesture.
When she has free time, Gracie also visits a local hospital and nursing home to comfort patients, and she does ministry work. This busy dog even has a Facebook page and a Twitter account.
Meyer sums up Gracie's special role best: “The real goal with these dogs is that they provide a bridge to people — most people love a dog.”
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