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Talk to Toby, Kids: Golden retriever in training at Lakewood as therapy dog

Toby, a golden retriever, is being trained at Lakewood Elementary School in Modesto to work with children.  Students posing with Toby, from left:  Nathan Hong, 10, Elijah Oliver, 9, Nate Overholtzer, 10, Claire Machado, 9, Brianna Blair, 9, and Erin Redding, 10.
Toby, a golden retriever, is being trained at Lakewood Elementary School in Modesto to work with children. Students posing with Toby, from left: Nathan Hong, 10, Elijah Oliver, 9, Nate Overholtzer, 10, Claire Machado, 9, Brianna Blair, 9, and Erin Redding, 10. Modesto Bee

Toby is a kid's best friend and a great listener. He's never betrayed a confidence or given bad advice.

The 2-year-old golden retriever holds confessionals weekly at Modesto's Lakewood Elementary School and trots through classrooms to watch over students as they learn to read.

"I feel like I'm talking to myself sometimes, but I know he is listening," said Phillip Killough, 11. "It always seems like he's smiling, too, so he puts a big smile on my face. Toby rocks."

Toby arrived on the Lakewood campus late last month and spends three days a week at the school training to become a certified therapy dog through the Delta Society's Pet Partners program.

Therapy dogs are best known for giving puppy love in hospitals, nursing homes and disaster areas, but schools around the nation have begun using therapy dogs as a combination teacher and counselor. Some educators believe the dogs bring self-confidence to struggling readers and help calm students, especially those with behavioral and emotional problems.

Toby will take a test after 12 weeks of training and become a permanent fixture at Lakewood and in some other Modesto classrooms.

"Toby comes into my chorus class and lays down next to us," said Josh Short, 10, as he petted Toby on the playground. "Everybody likes him. He helps us relax from all the troubles at school."

Principal Doug Fraser said he first experienced the benefits of a school pet while at Modesto's Enslen Elementary School. There, a teacher's pug took up residence in the school office.

"It didn't matter how angry or irate a parent was coming into the office; if I'm holding a cute little pug, everybody calms down," Fraser said.

Dog goes home with the principal

Fraser asked the Modesto-based Society for Handicapped Children and Adults for help sponsoring a therapy dog at Lakewood. The nonprofit organization paid the $300 adoption fee and $180 yearly medical insurance. Fraser is asking for community donations to help pay for Toby's food, treats and toys.

"I think this is pretty groundbreaking in our area," said Carole McFarlane, the society's director of operations. "This was a brand-new concept to me. I think of Toby as our mascot."

The golden retriever was chosen for his peaceful demeanor. He follows Fraser around campus with a leash attached to his snout. When basketballs bounce over Toby's head, he doesn't chase after them. When Fraser takes him out to the playground during morning recess, Toby stands quietly while being mobbed by dozens of students who pet and hug him.

"It's not a bad job for a dog," Fraser said. "He'll go take a snooze later."

Minutes after recess, Toby plops down, exhausted, under Fraser's desk. Toby has a sheepskin-lined kennel in the school work room and a water bowl in Fraser's office.

At the end of the school day, Toby goes home with Fraser.

During "Toby Time," the dog meets with small groups of students in a conference room with a well-chewed, cross-eyed green rabbit and a tennis ball waiting for him.

Once he's certified as a therapy dog, Toby will spend most of his time with the school's autistic, deaf and hard-of-hearing students. He'll have to pass a series of tests to prove he's comfortable around groups of strangers and is not aggressive.

'The Dogtor Is In'

Because Lakewood does not serve a large number of low-income students, the school doesn't get funds for counseling under the "No Child Left Behind" Act, Fraser said. Toby gives Fraser a way to ask students how they feel about school.

"It gives me an opportunity to talk to the kids, to ask them how their week's going," Fraser said. "They need an outlet."

"The Dogtor Is In" sign on the conference room door lets students know that two furry ears are ready to listen.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.

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