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Barney, a facility dog, comforts and reassures students

MADISON – In his recent “Sittin With the Supe” podcast, Dr. Ed Nichols, Superintendent of Madison City Schools, welcomed Barney, the facility dog that works at Madison Elementary School.

Speaking for Barney were his primary handler, Stefanie Cook, Counselor at Madison elementary; Beth Woodard, Barney’s secondary counselor and Gifted Specialist at Madison elementary; and Stephanie Allen, MCS District Mental Health Services Coordinator.

Named after a “Mayberry” character, Barney Fife is a friendly, black Labrador Retriever that supports students’ mental well-being.

Cook transitioned from teacher to counselor in 2015. That year, Cook and Woodard attended a counselor conference and visited a workshop, “Animals in a Therapeutic Role.”

The session opened Cook’s interest. She asked herself, “What if he had an animal in the workplace?” Allen liked the concept of a support animal for students and helped by talking to Frances McGowan with Service Dogs of Alabama and Jamie Golliver, Madison Elementary Principal.

At eight weeks old, Barney went to Florida Prisons and learned basic commands from prisoners. Barney also completed advanced training. “COVID-19 put a 1.5-year delay on everything, and Barney’s training stopped,” Cook said. Barney finally arrived in Madison in 2022.

A facility dog is very different from a service dog. “A facility dog can work all day to give comfort and to quiet anxiety and stress, but Barney does get a break from 11 a.m. to noon. A therapy dog can only work about three or four hours,” Cook said.

As secondary handler, Woodard functions like a grandparent. “I’m a second person in the building with training and commands. When Stephanie is out, Barney still comes to ‘work,’” Woodard said.

Allen said mental health concerns and other social skills have changed in recent years. “Lots of research has shown benefits of facility dogs. Facility dogs can increase safe learning environments and help children with behavior concerns. With only a few minutes in the building at Madison elementary, you can feel the difference,” Allen said.

Students have learned the boundaries for Barney. “Students in a line will give ‘thumb wags’ when they see Barney at a distance. No one broke line to pet him. Barney is helping with soft skills,” Allen said.

Paradise Animal Hospital has cared for Barney, who receives free medical service from a veterinarian. “Barney is their little celebrity,” Cook said.

“Stephanie has a schedule if teachers want time with Barney in the classroom. Some teachers had hesitation, but as the year went by, they see how he helps the kids,” Woodard said.

Barney’s personality relaxes people. During recent severe weather, some children were upset, but Barney came in and laid down to boost relaxation. “He gives comfort,” Cook said.

“Barney is a wonderful addition to the school,” Nichols said. “I think facility dogs will expand across the system. What Barney brings to the school is amazing.”

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