Therapy dog begins work at Montecito Union School
Students at Montecito Union School have lit up at the introduction of the school’s newest staff member: Cleo, an 8-month-old bernedoodle.
Cleo first walked the halls Jan. 11 and has begun to serve the students’ (and staff’s) emotional needs amidst the strain of the pandemic.
It may seem unlikely that a puppy could behave in such a bustling environment, but Cleo has settled in very well, according to Principal Dr. Nick Bruski.
“She is already so fulfilled when she’s working,” he said.
When she was just 2 months old, she began training at Aly’s Puppy Boot Camp in Arroyo Grande.
The district spent $14,000 on her training and $900 for the purchase, as approved by the board of trustees July 22, 2020. Dr. Bruski spent $2,600 for the purchase and is responsible for all veterinary, grooming and household expenses.
Cleo lived at boot camp for six months, learning to approach children gently and maintain a calm presence. Cold Spring School’s therapy dog, Sage, underwent the same process before joining the school in 2018.
Dr. Bruski used the school’s pledge of kindness, respect and integrity to show students how well Cleo exhibits the traits.
She exemplifies kindness in her warm way of greeting each student, and she respects her handler while she walks without pulling. Integrity is practiced when Cleo is alone on her cot. She doesn’t stir, even when no one is watching.
“Her training is really about her being safe in the school setting,” Dr. Bruski said.
A unique challenge roams in the school’s nature lab — chickens. Dr. Bruski informed trainers of the school’s intentions to raise chickens, so trainers worked with Cleo to respect the birds’ space.
Aly’s Puppy Boot Camp shared a video of Cleo around chickens with the caption: “Cleo is bombproof around the chickens!”
The nature lab and science farm project is what spurred the idea of getting a school dog. When students received surveys asking what they’d like in the lab, many wrote they’d love a dog.
“They want animals and a dog at school. That coupled with the Thomas Fire and the debris flow, and now COVID, it felt like a great time to bring in a therapy dog to enrich the lives of our students,” Dr. Bruski said.
She started working one-on-one with students with autism, some of which are nonverbal.
A 2014 study by S. Fung and A.S. Leung in the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy found that animal-assisted play therapy delivered a “small but statistically significant increases in the verbal social behavior of the children with autism” when compared to a traditional intervention.
Continued therapy could make significant progress in students’ speech production. Authors suggest that the simple, direct communication dogs provide can make students more comfortable interacting with humans.
Cleo is also on call for students who are having a rough day. Right now, she’s working in small settings.
“Because of COVID, we’re not taking her out during popular times because we want to keep students six feet apart,” Dr. Bruski said.
Cleo visited each classroom last week and still is “the buzz of the school.”
The students learned how to approach Cleo, with their hands held out like a low-five. Kindergarten students, delighted by their furry friend, are making books demonstrating how to greet Cleo.
“Every time I walk outside with her, the kids are shouting ‘Cleo, Cleo’ and wanting a chance to hang out with her,” he said.
Cleo lives with the Bruski family after school hours and has been an “amazing addition” to the family.
Dr. Bruski’s children couldn’t decide on a name, so the name “Cleo” was given by the breeder.
Administrators chose a bernedoodle (a hybrid of Bernese mountain dog and poodle) because they knew poodle mixes have a higher chance of being hypoallergenic. They had also heard Bernese mountain dogs described as gentle giants.
“We wanted a dog that can be smart, calm, gentle and loving and be a nice calming presence on campus,” he said.
So far, she has exceeded his expectations and he thanks the district for giving Cleo an opportunity.