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When school days include dog days

Two educated Rottweilers use canine therapy training and plain old friendliness to teach children new behaviors.

Published January 25, 2007

[Times photo: Keri Wiginton]
Karli Kimbrough, a first-grader at Spring Hill's Challenger K-8 school, kisses Zeus, a 2-year-old Rottweiler that lends students a helping paw.

In most schools, it would be an unusual - even alarming - sight: two 100-pound Rottweilers in the hallways and classrooms.

But at Challenger K-8, Zoie and Zeus are almost part of the population, thanks to counselor Monica Lovett, who brings the trained, certified therapy dogs to work almost every day.

Lovett says the canines are an invaluable part of the school's team and have worked near miracles with kids.

The therapy dog story began by accident when Lovett was at West Hernando Middle about six years ago.

Her Boston terrier, recovering from surgery for a brain tumor, needed constant supervision. Principal Ken Pritz suggested that Lovett bring the dog to school.

"A young boy with emotional issues took an interest. We let him walk the dog, pet him, talk to him. Soon the student was having conversations with his counselor, something that had never happened before, and I knew. I knew this could be something," Lovett said.

Soon after, Lovett got Zeus. She had him trained and, when he was a year old, she and the dog enrolled in therapy dog certification school.

The six-week classes included supervised visits to senior citizen facilities, where Zeus spent time with patients. To be certified, he had to be calm and friendly, even when touched by strangers, and even when Lovett was out of the room.

Lovett says Zeus passed as if he were valedictorian. Off he went to work at Challenger K-8, at the invitation of principal Sue Stoops. Meanwhile, Zoie, still a baby, waited her turn for training - and then she became another star student.

The dogs have worked at Challenger since it opened. When the dogs skip school, people notice, and Lovett hears complaints.

"I have a Dutch door on my office. People come by all the time to pat dogs' heads or say hi. Some say their day isn't going so well and they need a dog-hug," Lovett explained.

Zoie and Zeus' therapy clients range in age from 5 to 13. The canines teach positive behavior reinforcement, help reduce anxiety and stress and teach responsibility. Students learn the value of the animal-human bond.

The four-legged therapists are an inspiration in many ways. Kids who might not like to read will actually volunteer to read to Zeus or Zoie. Fifth-grader Sierra Ruiz painted a professional-looking portrait of them, which hangs in the counseling office.

It's unusual for anyone to be fearful of the dogs, but Lovett places herself between them and a shy child or adult. She talks calmly, explaining the dogs' nature, their training and their skills.

Before long, those who were slightly reticent are hugging a Rottie or taking one for a walk.

Lovett and her husband, Bobby, live in rural Brooksville with the Rotties, two Boston terriers and horses, one of which Lovett has had since she was in the seventh grade.

She hopes to put the terriers to work at school in the future.

If she could find a way to get horses into school, she probably would do that, too.




[Last modified January 25, 2007, 08:20:29]

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