by RACHEL KELLY
Article added: 03-14-2023
Pepper the service dog at Farmin Stidwell Elementary (the first and only therapy dog in the district) is taking the community by storm, one connection at a time. She is at the elementary school two to three days a week, and boy is she busy when she’s in! All the kids love her and look forward to the days that she’s in office. Whether the kiddos need some extra snuggles to calm down, a pet to lift their spirits, a nonjudgmental ear to listen to their woes, or some help with literacy, Pepper is there to lend a paw.
Pepper’s story begins with Ellen Wassif and her family. Both she and her husband are licensed therapists who work in differing areas of expertise. Ellen has worked at Farmin Stidwell Elementary for several years and has experience with the benefits of therapy dogs in different professional capacities. “We have always wanted a therapy dog with us at work, so when we were looking to get a dog for our family, we looked into adopting a young dog. This would allow us to train the dog for therapy work but also just to have a fun dog with us at home,” says Ellen.
There’s never a complete guarantee that a dog will pass the high standards of training required for therapy animals, so it’s important that owners enjoy the dog simply because they enjoy dogs. Ellen and her family were no exception.
When Ellen approached the school administration with the idea of having a therapy dog with her at the school, she put together a whole presentation of the benefits the dog could bring to the school and its students. When Ellen and her family adopted Pepper from the Northwest Boxer Rescue, they were prepared to put a lot of their own investments into making sure that her training was successful. Over the course of a year and a half, the family invested their own funds and time to train Pepper, after which, they succeeded in certification through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Ellen also spent quite a bit of time and effort training students the parameters of appropriate interaction with the new friendly presence on campus.
Rules for interaction with Pepper include three students at a time are allowed to approach, with pets lasting no more than 10 seconds. Children often count out loud to make sure that everyone gets a turn. Students aren’t allowed to get out of line to greet Pepper but are allowed to wave during class transitions. Regardless, the eventual arrival of Pepper still caused quite a stir. For obvious reasons, she was an instant sensation. Everyone wanted to say hello at once. Nowadays, both students and staff have adjusted to Pepper’s presence to the point that she is simply a regular and positive part of everyday school life.
The administration has been overwhelmingly supportive of Ellen and Pepper; their trust has garnered a host of benefits to students and staff. Pepper has made a big difference in the overall morale of students, as well as helped Ellen manage and resolve negative emotions. “Some kids will feel uncomfortable talking to me about how they feel, but they’ll come in to talk to Pepper,” says Ellen. She has a space in her office dedicated to Pepper, where students can sit and Pepper will hop up and lay her head on the student’s lap, lending a compassionate and nonjudgmental ear. Pepper is also used as an incentive for students to encourage good behavior, because everyone wants to be able to take some time to meet Pepper in her space and read a book. In fact, aiding in literacy is one of Pepper’s main jobs at the school.
“Research shows that if kids don’t reach literacy by third grade, they easily fall behind in all subjects,” says Ellen. Thankfully Pepper is there to help kids not fall behind. The Panhandle Alliance for Education (P.A.F.E) offers grants to schools for additional education programs. Their grant has allowed for the school to purchase supplies for the R.E.A.D. with Pepper, a program for reading. Students visit Pepper and choose one of the many books within their grade level that were purchased with funds from the P.A.F.E. grant. After 10 books, students are allowed to choose a book “signed” by Pepper to keep. It is a huge hit with students and is making a big difference in their lives every day.
It’s no wonder, then, that Pepper is a local celebrity, with a growing Instagram following. Thanks to Ellen and her family, the supportive administration at Farmin Stidwell Elementary, the grant from the Panhandle Alliance for Education and, of course, Pepper, our children are given a greater opportunity for confidence in their successes, ultimately culminating in a better outlook for their futures. Thank you, Pepper. You deserve all the pets!
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