Rachael and Catcher ready

Bryan Elementary School guidance counselor Rachael Mann poses with the school’s new therapy dog, a 2-year-old yellow lab named Catcher, in front of Bryan Elementary School last week.

Since 2004, there’s been a staple at Bryan Elementary School.

It’s not an activity or person. It isn’t having a certain food on a specific day or going on an annual field trip.

It’s school therapy dogs, which Bryan Elementary has had four of, with the fourth dog, a 2-year-old yellow lab named Catcher, making his debut this school year.

“He will be with me with classroom lessons, with small groups and individuals,” said Rachael Mann, guidance counselor at Bryan Elementary and Catcher’s handler. “He will be able to create that bond with the students and myself, but also just with him and the students to create that bond, to create that friendship. Not only do they have me to go to, they can also go to Catcher as well so they feel comfortable.”

Catcher, along with Bryan’s previous three therapy dogs, Allie, Gracie and most recently, Ike, are all part of The Ability Center’s Assistance Dog Program, which is based in Sylvania, and “advocates, educates, partners and provides services supporting people with disabilities to thrive in their communities,” according to its website.

The Assistance Dog program started 36 years ago, with The Ability Center absorbing the program in 2011, and trains service dogs, which have public access rights, along with therapy and school therapy dogs.

“The whole point of the program is to provide independence to people,” said Mallory Crooks, public relations manager at The Ability Center.

In order to obtain a school therapy dog, Crooks said schools have to “apply and show interest” with a decent amount of applications coming from “word-of-mouth” from schools that are placed with one of the program’s dogs.

Bryan is dedicated to the use of school therapy dogs and has been home to therapy dogs for 16 years now. The Ability Center matched Bryan Elementary with Catcher around May and June after Catcher finished a K-9 student-teacher program in Tiffin last year.

“It’s amazing just to go to these trainings and professional developments and hear what other schools are doing based on what Bryan City Schools started,” said Mann, who’s worked at Bryan Elementary the last two years. “It’s very cool to see, and very cool to collaborate and talk about our programs.”

Mann, who also worked with Ike, said children at a young age may not be as open to talk to guidance counselors or other school adults because they could see the school staff as strangers.

But Mann said the comfort level a dog brings can help a kid open up more to her and other adults.

“The dog represents comfort, represents friendship,” Mann said. “So just having him there will help the bond between myself and the student, so eventually the student will be able to open up.”

Not only do kids get to pet Catcher, but Mann said students will also be able to do other activities with Catcher — whatever makes them more comfortable.

“With Catcher, we can play games with him, we can go on walks,” she said. “And having Catcher will be the perfect opportunity for them to feel comfortable. Because the young kids, like preschool and kindergarten, this is their first time coming into the schools.

“So having Catcher there, they may be more open to talk about what’s going on,” Mann said.

Karyn Cox, Bryan’s director of elementary education, said she’s seen students do that with Mann and Catcher’s predecessors throughout her 20 years in this school district.

“There’s a sense of calm,” Cox said. “Some of our students at this level like to talk to the dogs. They might not talk to the adults, but they might talk to the dogs. They seem to open up and feel less anxious with the dogs present.”

Something Mann and Catcher’s predecessors didn’t have to deal with, however, is the coronavirus pandemic.

But, Mann said Catcher is “ready for this job” and ready to help out in this unprecedented time.

“We may be seeing a lot of different behaviors coming from the students,” Mann said. “And so he’s gonna have to be a big asset to help with the kids opening up, and help them calming down and their social and emotional development. He’s gonna be used greatly in this school year. Because with this pandemic, there’s a lot of emotions that students may feel, like nervousness and anxiety.”

To help deal with those potential feelings, students won’t only be limited to playing with Catcher during counseling sessions. Mann said students will be able to play with Catcher after completing an achievement or goal to boost positive behavior.

And to see the smiles on the students’ faces when they see and interact with Catcher while Mann and Catcher are connecting with the kids, Mann said is “amazing to watch.”

“I could bring Catcher into a room and their days are brightened,” she said. “They have the biggest smiles on their faces. All last year they were asking, ‘Were we getting another dog? When are we getting another dog?’

“They’re super excited, and I’m super excited to introduce Catcher.”

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