03.18.16 — Students at Pine Bush Elementary School and Rotterdam Academy I get help with reading each week from a few special four-legged friends. Oliver, Meeka and Gracie are therapy dogs, owned by retired school teachers, who have been specially trained to be comfortable in a variety of settings. At Pine Bush, Oliver, the Bernese mountain dog, acts like an old pro with one child or 10. With his owner, Happy Scherer, Oliver visits many other local schools, hospitals and colleges. He has even taken his services to international levels when the Scherers lived in New Zealand.
Scherer said Oliver’s a natural with lots of experience. “He’s great in that he has this all figured out. He lies down so people can scratch his belly ... If kids are really crowding Oliver, he will get up and move and that is a teachable moment with the kids. We ask them what they do when they’re feeling too crowded and don’t have any space?”
To be certified as a therapy dog, the animals must pass series of performance tests proving their patience, gentle nature and obedience in a variety of settings.
Scherer, who used to teach in CTE's New Vision program, raised six guide dogs for the blind from puppyhood. “I knew when I retired that this is what I wanted to do So, after I turned in my last guide dog, we got Oliver with the idea of his being a therapy dog.”
“My students are always excited for the day that Oliver is visiting. They spend time reading to Oliver. They have developed some nice leisure reading skills this year and I'm sure Oliver's visits have contributed to that,” says Lynn Palmateer, a teacher at Pine Bush.
Teacher Jim Bailey said, "Oliver offers an
experience — exposure to a dog that the kids otherwise may not
At Rotterdam Academy I, students look forward to Thursday mornings when Ernie Wein brings Gracie and Meeka to the gym. The golden retrievers are half-sisters, both with beautiful plush coats that draw a natural attraction for both students and teachers.
Wein is retired from Shalmont Central School District, where he taught for 25 years. In his retirement he says his therapy dogs, "give me something unique to do and it keeps me out of trouble.”
Like Oliver, Meeka and Gracie encounter a variety of settings as therapy dogs and visit a senior center on Thursdays before they go to school. Wein has been so inspired by the experience that he’s written a children’s book about therapy dogs.
He says his younger dog, Gracie, knows the difference between her therapy mode and play mode at the dog park, where many fellow dog owners can’t believe the rambunctious and playful dog can be so calm in her therapeutic settings.
While it might not have been their favorite book, the two dogs listen patiently as two students take turns reading pages from “The Cat in the Hat.” One student commented on how calm the dogs are and wished he could take one home. “Gracie is my favorite because she’s snuggly and soft.”