Some students at Port St. Joe Elementary School were recently introduced to a new friend.
This one was furry, walked on four legs and answered to the name Gracie and what she brought to the Bridges classroom and the after-school 21st Century Program for a few minutes was a bit of calm and therapy.
Gracie, a year-old Golden Doodle, visited the classes as her first official therapy “assignment” at the school.
As schedules permit, Gracie’s owner, Valerie Clayton, who teaches technology at the school, hopes to make Gracie’s visits more frequent.
“My intention was to bring her to the schools,” Clayton said. “Her specialty is children.
“Anybody, any dog, has their specialty and children are Gracie’s.”
And, Gracie displayed that specialty early on.
Gracie is a Moss Creek Golden Doodle, bred and raised outside of Tampa.
Clayton was drawn to the site as much for what the dogs accomplished as therapy and service dogs as the breed.
“On their site, they have a Facebook page, I saw how many of the dogs were becoming therapy dogs and service dogs,” Clayton said.
“I was watching all these Golden Doodles making a difference in this world and making a difference in people’s lives.”
Further, Gracie’s early personality test revealed she had the proper disposition.
“They did all the initial training and they said she had the personality to be a therapy or service dog,” Clayton said. “For example, her sister was too hyper and not a good candidate.”
After the initial training, appropriately called “boot camp,” Clayton, who took possession of Gracie in August 2018, had Gracie undergo additional training at Pet Smart in Panama City.
Gracie then had to pass Alliance for Therapy Dog tests with a volunteer tester.
Her affinity for children again was the highlight.
“We walked with her around Lowe’s and the tester said she nearly flunked,” Clayton said. “Adults in the store seemed to frighten her a bit.
“But near the end, a group of children came up and Gracie loved it. She passed the test. Thank God for those children.”
Through the Alliance for Therapy Dogs Clayton also has insurance for Gracie.
“It is a great program,” Clayton said. “They match puppies with owners.”
Training completed, Gracie recently had her first visits to the elementary school (a trip to the nursing home didn’t go so well).
The first stop was the Bridges classroom, where teacher Lindsay Williams had already taught her students the fundamentals of interaction with a therapy dog: let them sniff one’s scent and ask permission before petting.
Later, there was the stop with the 21st Century classroom of Director Jo Clements and site administrator Karen Minger.
The school setting is appropriate because an aspect of Clayton’s mission (remember, she is a teacher) is education, about therapy and service dogs, the differences and appropriate behavior around them.
“I want to educate the children, I want to educate people,” Clayton said.
In very short strokes, when a service dog is in its harness with its owner, it is on the job, working.
Do not pet the dog or have any other interaction.
A therapy dog is the opposite; the goal is, with permission, to pet the dog as a calming or therapeutic mechanism.
With a half-day coming up for Christmas, Gracie is likely to make one more holiday visit and from there continue to become part of the Gulf District Schools family.