By Lee Reinsch
DE PERE – West De Pere High School’s newest faculty member isn’t big on lecturing, he can’t hold a piece of chalk and he doesn’t wear pants.
But he’s a superior listener and a great diplomat. He helps students be more independent, and he knows how to motivate them.
The Fenton effect
WDPHS special-education teacher Laura Lenss said Fenton the facility dog has transformed her classroom and improved her students’ capacity for learning.
“It’s funny, because you’d think that if you add a dog to a classroom, the students would be distracted, because who wouldn’t want to hang out with the dog?” Lenss said.
But students aren’t distracted. In fact, quite the opposite is true.
“Since I’ve had Fenton as part of my classroom, I’ve had students become far more engaged because they’re more relaxed when they’re learning something difficult,” Lenss said.
As a facility dog, Fenton is trained to work in a professional setting with those who have special needs.
Facility dogs differ from therapy dogs in that the latter primarily provides comfort. While Fenton does plenty of that, he knows 40 commands and can do practical things, such as pick up, retrieve and hold items. This helps students who have mobility concerns depend less on others, Lenss said.
His can comfort a distressed person by lying across his or her lap, and he can also hold reading material with his mouth while the student reads from it. This can make giving a speech a less anxiety-provoking event for the student.
Fenton also enjoys it when students read to him.
“Many of our students struggle with reading and writing,” she said. “There’s a ton of research out there about the benefits of kids reading to dogs, because a dog will never interrupt you.”
Fenton underwent two years of training through the Canine Companions for Independence school for service dogs in Columbus, Ohio, starting when he was just two months old.
Lenss trained as a facilitator for a week in Columbus this summer, and the two flew home in early August.
Fenton started school this fall.
A career first
On the second day, Lenss witnessed a small miracle. One of her students appeared to be quite upset. But when he began petting Fenton, everything changed.
“(The boy) looked at me and looked at Fenton, then looked at me and looked at Fenton again – and then passed me a note saying ‘Can I talk to you?’” she said.
The boy had suffered a trauma that week, and after talking it through with Fenton there to comfort him, he appeared calmer and much happier.
“That’s the fastest in my 10 years of teaching that I’ve ever had a student open up and express that they are struggling,” Lenss said.
In the minority
Canine Companions for Independence told Lenss she’s the only teacher in the state who has a fulltime facility dog in her classes.
A Fox Cities police-school liaison officer has one that splits its time among six schools, but the nearest teacher with a dedicated facility dog is in Illinois, she said.
Fenton, a two-year-old golden retriever/labrador mix, is valued at $50,000, according to Lenss.
CCI, a nonprofit headquartered in California, provided him to the school district at no charge.
CCI doesn’t charge for animals used for those with disabilities. It’s supported by major corporations and private sponsors.
The only costs the WDPSD picks up are Fenton’s food and vet care, which the Animal Hospital of De Pere provides at a discount, and the travel costs for the training at CCI.
Fenton lives with Lenss and her family.
“They love him,” she said.
Some of Lenss’s special-education students have conditions that ranging from the autism spectrum to learning, intellectual, emotional or behavioral disabilities.
“Many are hesitant learners or struggle with attendance, so a lot of the time, he’s just that motivation to be successful that day or to show up for school,” she said. “He’s just that all-accepting, loving presence anywhere he goes.”