March 1, 2023 at 6:06 p.m.
Therapy dog helps SCES students
For the past school year, Sauk Centre Elementary School has had a new four-legged staff member: Marvin, the golden retriever therapy dog. The canine companion has already proven to be a tremendous assistant for his owner, speech pathologist Bailee Jackson, not to mention a friend to students and teachers alike.
“This has kind of been a transitional year, getting him in the door, because he is so young,” Jackson said. “Having him here a lot of days a week has been a pretty big milestone for us.”
Jackson, who grew up in Lakeville, got Marvin when she was just out of graduate school; her friend and internship supervisor raised golden retrievers.
“She was right across the street, so I’d go and visit every day,” Jackson said. “She was having puppies a couple of summers ago, right before I started my job here out of grad school. I picked (Marvin) out and fell in love with him; I knew he had a good temperament because the parents did.”
Jackson did not originally intend on making Marvin a therapy dog; in her line of work, she knew she would want one at some point, but she didn’t know if Marvin would be ready so soon. However, he passed his puppy classes with flying colors, and people started commenting on his friendly temperament, so Jackson had him go through therapy dog training.
To be certified as a therapy dog, Marvin needed to pass two basic obedience classes and the canine good citizen test. After that, he was certified through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, which required passing another test with an evaluator, and then he got checked by a vet and received letters of recommendation from people who had witnessed his good behavior at school.
As a speech pathologist, Jackson services students with a variety of needs, including children who have trouble with articulation and language as well as those with learning disabilities, autism, Down syndrome and emotional and behavioral disorders. Through this, Marvin engages with a wide range of students.
“It’s interesting because he interacts with each age and each disability a little differently,” Jackson said. “He knows who needs him emotionally and maybe who isn’t a huge dog lover.”
Being a year and a half, Marvin is still a young dog, so Jackson makes sure she doesn’t overdo his school hours; therapy dogs are usually started full-time in school when they are two years old. When Marvin does come in for a full day, though, he starts by greeting everyone he can, including the students as they come in, and he will not go into Jackson’s office until he has done a round down the SCES hallway to see all of the teachers.
Marvin will join Jackson for her sessions throughout the day; Jackson makes sure to give him breaks, so when she is doing something like meeting with groups of students out in the hallways or classrooms, she will let him relax in her office. He also has special jobs where students can work to earn minutes with him, especially students who struggle with following classroom expectations or transitioning from one spot to the next.
“If they’re having trouble transitioning, we’ll get them from their classroom, and they’ll walk with Marvin to their next spot where they need to be, just to change the mindset around it,” Jackson said. “It makes it fun when Marvin gets to go with them.”
Once, Jackson had a student who was struggling with speech; last year, he was having trouble starting conversations or getting to Jackson’s room, but this year, it is a different story.
“This kid comes in every day, looking for Marvin, (and) will sometimes sit with Marvin the entire time I’m working with him,” Jackson said. “He’ll engage nonstop and have one hand on Marvin, petting him, completely willing to take part in the activities we’re doing. I don’t know if I would’ve gotten that much growth out of that student if Marvin hadn’t been here.”
Jackson has seen students’ demeanor totally change when Marvin comes wagging into the room.
“There used to be kids who would struggle coming to my room – leaving the classroom, leaving their friends,” Jackson said. “They run now when they know Marv is coming; they skip to my room, ‘Marvin’s here! Marvin’s here!’ I feel like it’s different, it’s someone who loves them regardless of what they’re going through or what’s hard for them. He doesn’t judge the kids who have a hard time making friends or reading or writing.”
Even for the staff, Jackson believes Marvin is a needed boost.
“I feel like teacher burnout is a real thing these days,” Jackson said. “I hope that, when people see him in the hallway and get a tail wag, he makes them feel special and seen and loved. He brightens a lot of days; you can’t not love a golden retriever.”
When staff, students or anyone interacts with Marvin, they are encouraged to be calm and ask before they pet him – although Marvin is usually more than ready for that – and Jackson also prefers it when students stay on their feet when petting him rather than getting down in his face. Also, if they have food in their hands, they should not be petting him. If he needs a pause from the action, Marvin will go sit on his own.
Jackson and Marvin go on long walks on the Wobegon Trail every day after school; Marvin loves playing in the snow, finding sticks and generally just being a dog after his time indoors. By the end of the day, both he and Jackson have dinner and camp out on the couch.
“He loves to swim, so in the summertime, he’ll spend most of the day in the lake,” Jackson said. “He has a pretty good life. He gets frequent Caribou pup cups on Friday mornings; he knows the drive-thru, and the ladies know him.”
Marvin also has a dog friend at home: Bucky, a German shorthair pointer.
“We always say Marvin loves Bucky more than Bucky loves Marvin,” Jackson said.
Jackson is hoping to utilize Marvin’s therapy dog services over the summer, possibly through nursing home visits.
“Summer’s a long break, and I do feel like he likes working,” Jackson said. “That’d be really fun for the both of us.”
For Jackson, having a therapy dog assisting her is a complete game-changer.
“He has been a big accomplishment for me, and being able to share him with students and seeing the impact has made coming to work so much more fun,” Jackson said. “When we walk down the hallway, everyone’s like, ‘Marvin’s here today!’ and that makes me feel really good. I’m proud of the work we’ve done.”