CORTLANDT, NY – If you’ve walked the halls of Van Cortlandtville Elementary School for the past three years, you’ve likely seen or sensed Laser’s presence in the building. After all, it is considered a construction star.
Laser is the school’s service dog, a nearly 4 year old yellow lab that plays a vital role in providing social and emotional support to both the students and the Van Cortlandtville staff. It is used in countless different roles in the building: helping students with their self-confidence and self-esteem, calming students down in crises, sitting in special school classes and helping to reward student behavior through their PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions Supports) system.
Jacqueline Woodruff, Headmistress at Van Cortlandtville, had the original idea of bringing a service dog into the building and has now seen firsthand the overwhelmingly positive impact lasers are having on the community at their school.
“Being a dog lover myself, I was always hoping to do it,” said Woodruff. “Through some work with my location-based team, we had talked about doing this project to research what a service dog could do for students.”
Woodruff began researching the school’s options for accepting a service animal in 2018. With the support of the PTA, she and her staff applied for a grant from PetSmart Charities and received $ 10,000 to purchase a service dog from Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities. a nonprofit organization based in Torrington, Connecticut that trains dogs to prepare them for a variety of service roles.
“You will be matched with the dog as needed,” said Woodruff. Since Laser’s role is primarily in working with young college students and students with disabilities, she was specifically trained in the role of providing emotional support to children.
Woodruff, along with her secretary and Van Cortlandtville’s school social worker, was selected as the three main leaders of Laser and went to the ECAD facility to complete the dog’s training. They remained ECAD’s on-site residence so Lasers could better get used to their new dealers.
“We were able to stay on the property and were in full responsibility for the dog,” said Woodruff. “We had to take classes, learn all the service rules, all kinds of things that are expected of lasers.”
Laser lives mostly with Woodruff and spends most of his time at headquarters or in the counselor’s office. During the day, she helps students in a variety of ways and is the first face the 600 children who visit Van Cortlandtville see when they walk through the main entrance.
“She greets the children every morning. She sits with me in the lobby while we get off our buses. We play music for the kids and Laser sits there and says hello, ”Woodruff said. The children know the protocol; they don’t come to her and touch her unless I say she’s visiting. “
Students learn to use lasers to communicate non-verbally as they work, which Woodruff says is beneficial for students with significant speech delays.
Laser is also a huge part of the school’s PBIS reward system. Students earn “rock tickets” through the system and can spend their tickets on a variety of options. Predictably, the most popular selection is a visit to Laser.
“Nine times out of ten they choose lasers,” said Woodruff.
The Yellow Lab serves as a calming presence for students in a crisis. Students can use lasers to lie in one of the many dog beds at their main locations to help them calm down and redirect their behavior.
“Children come in, lie down next to her, come close to her. Just the comfort of petting and being able to just cuddle, ”said Woodruff. “So often they just cuddle and that’s what they need to get out of there.”
When a school-phobic child has difficulty entering the school building, Laser goes out and comes in with the student on a leash. Woodruff said that most children who experience school phobic emotions are guided by Laser’s presence and enter the building with her assistance.
Another primary role of lasers in school is to help reluctant readers open up to reading aloud. Students read lasers aloud to increase their confidence in their reading skills and, in turn, help them read in a classroom setting.
“When they have the opportunity to read lasers, it’s very different from being called into a guided reading group with a teacher and having to perform in front of their colleagues,” said Woodruff. “You will be practicing your book with a laser. So when you return to the classroom, you will feel more comfortable with this text and can feel more confident reading it.”
While students studied remotely during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, reluctant readers read lasers out over Google Meets. During Woodruff’s visits to virtual classrooms, she occasionally made cameos to say hello to students and met with children feeling the weight of the combined stress of distance learning and the pandemic.
“I’ve often ‘just wanted to visit, just have a laser fix, just see her’ and the kids just talked to her online,” said Woodruff. “She sat down on my little couch at home, sat next to me and I put the Chromebook in front of her.”
Woodruff didn’t expect the love and support the Van Cortlandtville Laser students and staff would show. She knew that having a service dog in the building would bring many benefits, but was surprised at how deeply connected the school community was with lasers.
“I knew what animals could bring, but did I know how much our staff and students would just love them to death? Probably not, ”said Woodruff. “Seeing it and thinking about it is something completely different.”
After seeing the tremendous impact lasers have had on their students, their employees, and themselves, Woodruff campaigns for service animals to be used in educational institutions.
“It lights up every room. If I stop in a classroom, if I stop in the staff room, you can just see smiles on everyone’s face, ”she said. “I think in every school, especially in elementary schools and especially where there are children with disabilities, schools must have animals.”