The Australian Labradoodle spends her days visiting Shettler and Beach elementary schools. For the past few weeks, school counselor Kelly Hoekenga has been accompanied by the 13-week-old puppy, who is in the process of becoming a therapy dog.
Scout’s role in Fruitport Community Schools stems from a conference Hoekenga attended about the role schools can play regarding stress or trauma. Hoekenga said she found some in attendance had assisted-animal therapy.
After meeting with Fruitport Community Schools Superintendent Bob Szymoniak, Shettler Principal Janelle Duffey and Beach Principal Courtney Stahl, Hoekenga started researching the best breeds for therapy dogs.
Although she initially wanted to find a rescue dog, Hoekenga said some aren’t hypoallergenic, have uncertain pasts, and restrictions about being around small children or other pets. Given allergies and the fact the dog would be working with kindergarten through fifth-grade students, Hoekenga said they needed to find a dog that wouldn’t shed and would have a good temperament.
Hoekenga’s research led her to Labradoodles, a mix of a Labrador retriever and poodle.
After researching breeders and contacting 12 of them, Hoekenga said she knew she found the right breeder when the woman suggested puppies in an upcoming litter might be the size and have the temperament suitable for a therapy dog.
Hoekenga worked with Maureen Wicker of Labradoodle Ranch in Okemos, who also helped connect her with Alliance of Therapy Dogs. She spoke with the breeder and the alliance’s Kim Wood about the characteristics required in a therapy dog.
Hoekenga visited the litter three times to get to know the puppies before they were ready to go to their new homes so she could get a sense of their personalities. The breeder helped her select Scout based on the dog’s temperament and characteristics, Hoekenga said.
Hoekenga noted that Scout is hypoallergenic and has a coat that won’t shed.
While donations were made to cover the cost of Scout, Hoekenga said she and her husband decided to invest and purchase her for the students. Clarke Animal Hospital donated the first year of care.
Since joining the Hoekenga family about five weeks ago, Scout has visited the schools to become familiar with the sounds and smells. Scout’s days are now filled with spending time with students and staff members at the two elementary schools.
Spending time with Scout is built into the schedule for some students who are going through a hard time or experiencing anxiety. Scout also works with students who shut down and won’t communicate with staff.
Students can spend time sitting and talking with Scout and take her for walks around the building. Hoekenga said Scout helps de-escalate emotions.
“Our kids today have so many more stressors between social media, academic rigor — there’s just so much,” Hoekenga said.
Scout seems to have an instinct about which students need her the most, Hoekenga said, and seems to know what the children need.
Duffey, who also attended a conference about therapy dogs in schools, agrees that the school community could benefit from one.
“Scout is a wonderful addition to our school,” she said.
The students and staff at the two schools played a role in naming their new companion. The options were Scout, from “To Kill a Mocking Bird”; Willow, after the tree that provides protection; and Haven, as in a safe haven.
Scout won by 19 votes.
As Bradlee Becker petted his new four-legged friend, the second-grader said he enjoys playing with Scout and eating his lunch with her.
“She makes me feel happy,” he said.
So far, Scout’s impact has exceeded Hoekenga’s expectations. She said she expected a change in students, but she’s also noticed it in staff members.
“It’s humbling to see what an animal can do,” she said.
Hoekenga said she wouldn’t have been able to make the therapy dog opportunity possible without the help of Wicker and Wood in selecting Scout and training, and the support of the school administrators.
Scout will begin obedience training in January, followed by therapy training. Hoekenga said she hopes to be a certified handler and Scout become a certified therapy dog next year.
“I can’t wait to see, as she learns more, what she’ll end up doing,” Hoekenga said.