Classroom dog triggers better learning

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Kids pet Jersey the dog during a class at The Outdoor Campus. / Melissa Sue Gerrits / Argus Leader 

A Patrick Henry Middle School student is learning about leaves.

But as a pointer-retriever mix named Jersey walks by, the girl reaches out her hand and affectionately strokes one of the dog’s soft black ears.

The exchange takes only a few seconds, but both girl and dog seem happier as they part.

Chalk up another success story for Jersey and her owner, Shelly Pierson.

Pierson first took Jersey to her classroom of fourth-graders at All-City Elementary School more than two years ago. Now, with Pierson in her first months as school program coordinator at The Outdoor Campus, the dog continues to accompany her to work.

“When I came out to The Outdoor Campus, we saw that she could be a valuable asset here,” Pierson says. “She’s our official ‘bark ranger.’ ”

Jersey isn’t the only pet that goes to work with its owner. Other animals can be found in various locations around town, and dogs play an important role as companion animals at hospitals and nursing homes.

Jersey, however, exclusively focuses on children and has since Pierson chose her from a litter of 8-week-old puppies at the Sioux Falls Area Humane Society.

Kevin Dick, now assigned to Pettigrew Elementary, was Pierson’s principal at All-City when she proposed bringing a dog into the classroom.

“She had a great temperament,” Dick said of Jersey. “She was a little puppyish that first year, but soon you could see how calm that dog was. She’s a very relaxed and mellow animal, and the kids really responded to that.”

One student who struggled with focusing on and finishing his schoolwork developed a special bond with Jersey.

“There were some rewards they worked toward,” Dick says. “If he got his work done and was behaving, he could have some extra time with the dog. And Jersey would always be at his feet.”

Pierson worked Jersey into her pupils’ coursework. They learned math by weighing and measuring the dog as she grew and keeping track of how much it costs to own a dog. The students researched the different traits of dogs and, accompanied by a parent, were responsible for taking Jersey outside for bathroom breaks.

The fourth-graders wanted to read more about dogs, so Pierson came up with a reading list: “Old Yeller,” “Where the Red Fern Grows,” “Because of Winn-Dixie,” “Shiloh” and “The Incredible Journey.” That taught students how literature can move them (remember how “Old Yeller” ends?).

“As a teacher, when I had kids tear up or one little boy who cried, it was one of those moments like, wow, that piece of literature actually moved that child. It showed the kids that reading can put you somewhere else,” Pierson says.

At The Outdoor Center, Jersey doesn’t help with math or literature as such, and she’s just starting to attend some of the elementary classes. Pierson keeps her on a leash.

“I’ve spent really the first part of this school year just getting her used to the building and grounds,” Pierson says. “She’s been going around on middle-school days, and I’m slowly implementing putting her into the classroom. It’s a little bit different than All-City, but she’s getting excited now. When I turn to come in to The Outdoor Campus, she starts whining; she’s excited to be here.”

Pierson doesn’t push the kids toward Jersey. She lets students and dog move at their own pace. Often the children will request permission before petting Jersey, and those who think she’s intimidating are allowed to stay away.

Sometimes that doesn’t last long.

“One girl was kind of scared of her, and she didn’t want to pet her,” Pierson says. “At the end, she ended up sitting there the closest to her.”

Having a “bark ranger” on campus also teaches the adults who visit, Pierson says.

“She reminds people who come to use the trails that this is a great place to exercise your dogs and take them on the trails,” she says.

“She also reminds them to please pick up after your pet.”

Recently, All-City Elementary fifth-graders visited The Outdoor Campus, and the former fourth-graders in Pierson’s class had a reunion with dog and teacher.

Yes, in that order.

“I think they might have hugged her before they hugged me,” Pierson says.

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