ELKTON – When Wendee Constable was a student at Harrisonburg High School, she volunteered at a veterinary clinic across from the old high school.
Constable went by on Tuesdays and Fridays and rode on house calls with the vet. During her volunteer time, she became acquainted with and fell in love with the mastiff breed. She always knew that one day she would want one herself.
The kindergarten teacher at River Bend Elementary School not only made her wish come true, she now owns three mastiffs. Her first, Tug, is no longer with Constable, but Gabriel and Odin are.
Gabriel is one of 11 therapy dogs working with Rockingham County Public Schools. Gabriel is 6 years old, weighs 218 pounds, and is taller than most of the students who come to him for comfort.
While Gabriel mostly stays in Constable’s kindergarten classroom – Gabriel has to stay with Constable the whole time for insurance reasons – they take their break in the mornings and do things with the older children. If a student wants to visit Gabriel, he can write him a visiting letter. Additionally, students who are having a tough day can be sent to spend some time with Gabriel before returning to their classroom.
“Sometimes kids just need a reset,” said Constable. “You will come down and spend some time with Gabriel and then come back with a different mindset.”
Gabriel may be tall, but he is very docile and patient as many hands caress and hug him.
Constable knew from the start that Gabriel would be a good therapy dog and had him tested and certified by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Gabriel has been with Constable since he was a 30 pound, 12 week old puppy. He started working as a therapy dog when he was 1 year old. Constable said it remains to be seen whether Odin will also become a therapy dog.
“He has to work on his manners first,” she said.
Constable’s students are visibly delighted with their furry colleague.
Ebyn Cooper said Gabriel “likes cheese and he can read”. Gabriel can recognize the written words “sit, sit and woof”.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said kindergarten kid Jacob Davis. “If I see him here, I’ll be happy.”
“He makes me happy every day,” said Haven Lantz.
There are 11 schools in Rockingham County Public Schools that have therapy dogs, said Doug Alderfer, assistant director of governance and administration.
The schools with therapy dogs are: John Wayland Elementary School, Cub Run Elementary School, Peak View Elementary School, Linville-Edom Elementary School, River Bend Elementary School, John C. Myers Elementary School, Elkton Middle School, J. Frank Hillyard Middle School, Montevideo Middle School and Spotswood High School.
RCPS has allowed therapy dogs since the 2018/19 school year.
“Therapy dogs serve as a safe and comforting influence for students of all ages,” Alderfer said. “The dogs show unconditional affection and acceptance, regardless of the circumstances. That is very reassuring for the students. “
Harrisonburg School Board members discussed the introduction of a policy allowing therapy dogs in schools at their September 7th meeting. There were some concerns about the students who do not want to be around dogs and the process of reporting this information and to whom.