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The Madison Record
Gifted Specialist Elizabeth Woodard, at left, and Guidance Counselor Stefanie Cook trained with Barnie, the facility dog who is comforting students at Madison Elementary School. CONTRIBUTED

Barnie, a facility dog, reassures students at Madison elementary

MADISON – Students are quite happy with the newest ‘faculty member’ at Madison Elementary School. Barnie, a Labrador retriever, is working as a facility dog to increase students’ well-being.

An avid “dog person,” Cook learned about Service Dogs of Alabama or SDA at the Alabama Counselor Association State Conference. “There was a session on using animals in a therapeutic setting. I knew I needed to research.”

Cook, Madison elementary’s counselor, bonded with SDA founders, Ashley Taylor and then director Frances McGowin. Taylor and McGowin helped Cook present her idea to Madison Board of Education in December 2018.

Cook, as handler, and gifted specialist Beth Woodard, who is backup handler, trained at SDA facilities in Hope Hull, Ala. for a week. They stayed onsite in a cabin with the dog to get acquainted.

“People with SDA were amazing. They offered feedback to help us become the best handler. I cannot say enough kind words,” Cook said. “I left SDA feeling like I was part of an elite club.” SDA primarily works with Labradors and Labradoodles. Labs are easy to train and have a strong desire to please.

Returning to Madison, Cook and Woodard escorted Barnie, a black Labrador retriever who is 3.5 years old. He weighs 62 pounds and stands 28 inches tall. Barnie is a “facility dog” who can work all day in public settings, like a school, compared to a therapy dog that works only a few hours.

Barnie will stay with Cook. After training for teachers, she hopes Barnie can stay in classrooms. For now, he rests in a kennel in Cook and Woodard’s classrooms. Barnie also visits the front office.

Barnie doesn’t get treats. “We have to keep him on a strict regimen so he doesn’t get an upset stomach in the classroom,” Cook said.

Their goal is for Barnie to work with all students and relieve stress and anxiety. “Barnie provides comfort to those in need. He helps our struggling readers by listening to them . . . without judgment,” Cook said.

Barnie is sharing happiness at the school, still recovering mentally from the pandemic.

Barnie also had training. SDA partners with Florida prisons, and Barnie worked several years in a one-on-one setting with a prisoner, who helped in basic training for a facility dog. Then, Barnie moved in with teacher Caroline Sease at Montgomery Academy for classroom time there.

His outgoing personality and love of children qualified Barnie as a facility dog. Barnie works off-leash in the classroom. “Barnie can detect adrenaline and cortisol changes in people. He (can) show me students who may be having a hard time and need help,” Cook said.

Barnie helps with stress and anxiety. Cook has conducted serious individual counseling when Barnie allowed the child to open up about difficult situations. “Barnie brings a sense of peace to the building. Students and teachers need that,” Cook said.

“Barnie loves to just sit in class while students are working and rest by their feet. He provides comfort to everyone he meets,” she said.

Cook praises SDA training as superior professional development. “The training gave me my ‘Why’ back. The pandemic affected all of us, including teachers. Sometimes, we forget ‘why’ we do this,” she said. “Barnie reminded me it was about advocating for the students and their mental health. Barnie is a tool for me to find out what is going on with my students.”

Cook’s favorite command is “Visit,” prompting Barnie to put his head in the child’s lap. “Paws up” commands Barnie to put his upper body in child’s lap to bond.

Parents can complete an “opt out” form if they don’t want their child around Barnie, perhaps due to allergies, asthma or even fear. Barnie is bathed at least twice weekly and brushed nightly.

A stuffed animal, Barnie’s lookalike, allows students to snuggle. One student is designing scarves for him. All students can connect.

SDA has partnered with Alabama State Department of Education to help fund these dogs. “A facility dog costs about $8,000. The state department covers $7,000, and our school fundraises the remaining $1,000. Barnie doesn’t belong to me . . . he belongs to this school and his students,” Cool said.

Last fall, a penny war raised money for Barnie.

This summer, Barnie will attend camps and check on students. Cook hopes to attend Vacation Bible Schools. “I want to reach out to anyone that works with children to see about a visit from Barnie,” she said.

In off time, Barnie will enjoy life at Cook’s house with her 13-month-old German Shepherd named Henry. “We bought Barnie a lifejacket so he can enjoy boat days,” she said.

For more information, visit servicedogsalabama.org.

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