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‘It does your heart good’: Meet the dogs working in Prince George schools

Oliver and Clementine are two of the therapy dogs on the job in School District No. 57

For the past six years, one of the most beloved staff members at Heritage Elementary School has been walking the halls on four legs.

His name is Oliver and he’s not only an adorable mini-Goldendoodle, but he was the first certified therapy dog to work in School District No. 57 (SD57) and has spent most of his career at Heritage.

His owner is principal Linda Picton and she’s been bringing him to school with her since he was a brand-new puppy.

After losing her two elderly dogs and then seeing her mother interact with a therapy dog while in hospice, Picton said she was inspired to get a therapy dog of her own.

“My kids wanted me to get another dog and we suddenly got fixated on maybe we could get a dog in and make him a therapy dog.”

Picton then got Oliver as a puppy in the summer of 2015 and immediately began exposing him to as many experiences as possible so he would be ready for the hectic pace of a school setting that fall.

Oliver also graduated with all four levels of the therapy dog certification through Caring K9.

“He was part of a pilot project through our Inclusive Education department,” said Picton. “They had asked me if I would do all the steps and so he helped pave the way but now there are quite a few therapy dogs in schools, but he was the first certified one.”

She said Oliver likes to sit with the kids when they read and loves visiting students during lunchtime in case anyone drops anything.

“We had a few kids that had a really difficult time when their parents were dropping them off and part of their plan would be, that the kids would come and visit Oliver before going to their class and that was well received and made a difference,” said Picton.  

She said Oliver has also helped kids who struggle on the playground. When they need a break from their peers they can spend some time with Oliver instead and he has even helped some students overcome their fear of dogs.

“I think for people who love dogs it has a calming effect and it's relaxing, being able to pet a dog. I know for me when I'm feeling sad, or stressed, or tired I really love snuggling with him.”

Picton says when Oliver is at school she always keeps him on a leash and has a gate in her office where the kids can come to him for a visit.

“It's a great opportunity for schools to take part in it, but there is work to it. He’s another staff member that you have to look after,” said Picton.  

Although he’s been a regular at Heritage  for the past six years, Oliver has been spending more time at home since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“We are looking at easing him back in again because the kids are definitely asking about him,” said Picton.  

When Picton’s friend and Harwin Elementary school principal, Linda McGraw, first met Oliver she also became interested in getting a therapy dog that she could bring to school.

“I’ve always known the effect animals had with children, how they were always pacifying and calming, so when she got Oliver and she started the training I thought I can do this too.”

McGraw eventually brought home Clementine, a Sheepadoodle, who has now been working at Harwin for the past three years.

“She has been in this building since she was a pup,” said McGraw. “She is part of the establishment now.”

Clementine has also graduated with all four levels of the therapy dog certification through Caring K9.

“There’s kids that come and get her to walk with them just for their regulation – if they need an out from the classroom they can just walk up and down the hallways with her,” said McGraw.  

“There’s kids that will come and curl up in the hallways with her right on the floor to help them self-regulate.”

McGraw said it’s not only the students who find Clementine calming but it’s the staff too.

“One day I came in and there was a staff member on the floor with the dog who needed a break. It is beneficial to everybody; it has that calming effect.”

McGraw said one of the things she loves most about having Clementine at the school is witnessing the effect she has on the students.

“Just to walk in and see kids that are curled up with – it just does your heart good,” said McGraw.

“The parents know the dog too, everybody knows her, she is part of the school. There are a couple of kids that every morning they need to come and say good morning to Clem.”

McGraw noted that she makes sure to let everyone who visits the school know there is a therapy dog in the building in case they have allergies or a fear of dogs.

“I think it is really important that there are therapy dogs in buildings,” noted McGraw. “I think it is extremely beneficial for the entire community within the building but on the same hand I also hope that people are going through the correct training procedures and having their dogs certified.”

McGraw said that Clementine works hard but does take Wednesdays off to go to doggy daycare for a break so she can just "be a dog" and play.

“She knows the difference from when she had her vest on and when she is home. There’s definitely a difference. You can tell when she knows she’s working and when she is out and about.”

When Clem is away another teacher will bring her dog Ellie, who is currently on level two of the therapy dog training course.

McGraw said it can be hard work to get a therapy dog certified, even if they are a good fit, but it’s wonderful to have the dogs working in the building.

She said it’s amazing to “just walk in and see a little one nose-to-nose on the floor petting the dog, who was just crying or upset about whatever but is able to come in and just be calm.”