Students go to the dog for best lessons

FLASH, a 10-year-old Golden Retriever, listens attentively to what her students tell her at St. Anselm school. Handler Andrea Villiers, centre, brings Flash every Wednesday to help teacher Marisa DeNicolais, second from right. (photo: Richard Walo)

If there were a contest at St. Anselm Catholic School among the six students in the special education class to pick the best teacher, Flash would probably win, paws down.

Flash is a 10-year-old Golden Retriever who helps Marisa DeNicolais teach reading, math and how to be a good host.

Before Flash shows up every Wednesday afternoon with her handler, Andrea Villiers, Kenrae Rd., the students have already visited the library for each to pick a book to read to her, which is different from reading to a teacher.

They go at their own pace because Flash doesn’t rush them or correct their pronunciation. There is no feeling of judgment. Sometimes, a child will describe the pictures in the book. Flash takes it all in, as she sits by the reading chair that’s in the corner of the room.

As for math, it’s surprising how much adding and subtracting of money you can accomplish with very little money in a dollar store trying to buy dog cookies as a Christmas gift.

Generosity is involved too. Other dogs connected to the school share the goodies, including Doug, owned by school principal Richard Walo.

This is the first time a dog has regularly visited the Millwood Rd. school. The St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program, started in Peterborough in 1992, got her in the door. Her positive interactions with the students have kept her there.

Each week, she arrives wearing the red and white scarf that identifies her as a therapy dog. The children are excited to tell her about what has happened in their lives since she was last here, and Villiers shares what Flash has been doing in the neighbourhood.

The students even clean up the classroom before she arrives, acting as good hosts.

None of the children have dogs at home, and some were timid when they first saw 77-pound Flash. Now everyone surrounds her when she arrives.  They are proud that Flash is visiting their class, and they can answer all sorts of questions about her.  At one point, they prepared a PowerPoint presentation that they took on the “road” to show other classes in the school.

DeNicolais, who has been at St. Anselm for the past three years teaching this class, says Flash has improved the social skills of the students, taught them responsibility and compassion to animals and given less verbal children an incentive to talk.

DeNicolais will be on maternity leave next year but, says Walo, Flash’s and Villiers’ weekly visits will continue to be an important part of  school life for this class.