• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Southside students, teachers like spending time with ‘Sully’, Facility dog: a welcome addition to sc

One student asks, “Can I pet him?” when she sees Sully in a hallway with his handler, Jenny Spencer, the administrative dean at Southside Elementary School. Another student says, “Dogs aren’t allowed in school,” to which Spencer responds, “He’s a working dog.” Sully became the first-ever facility dog in Woodford County Public Schools after the Board of Education unanimously approved a request from Spencer and Southside Principal Jeremy Reynolds in December so the 5-year-old Labrador retriever could start coming to school with her this month. Sully has been spending the last couple of weeks getting to know students at Southside. During his visits to classrooms, students learned about his role as their school’s facility dog. “We’re learning about him. And we’re trying to make sure that the kids feel comfortable with him,” says Spencer, while being interviewed in her office. A kennel near Spencer’s desk gave Sully a quiet place to take a nap after getting to know students in a classroom last Thursday morning, Feb. 13. During classroom visits, students also learned about autism because Sully received specialized training from Good Dog! Autism Companions so he could do different tasks – jobs – for children with autism, a condition that affects behavior and how they react socially to the world around them. One of the tasks learned by Sully is a “lay on” – where he literally lays on a child to help them relax when they get stressed or anxious, Spencer explains. If students are starting to feel overwhelmed by the emotions of a situation, they can ask to spend time with Sully, she says. “When they see him … it just kind of redirects (a student) to think of something else and to calm (emotions),” explains Spencer. She says teachers and others on Southside’s staff also appreciate being able to spend a few minutes with Sully. “Even as a staff member,” says Michelle Wright, who works in the front office, “I’m like, ‘Oh, Sully.’ And it’s like all the weight of the world is just gone for that minute that you’re sitting there with him. “… When Sully comes up (to you), you can’t help but smile.” Students get to practice social skills whenever they ask for Spencer’s permission to pet Sully, and he’s a motivator for students who are reluctant to come into school, guidance counselor Bianca Bargo says. She credits Sully for being a calming influence when a child was having a difficult time and reinforcing positive behavior by being a reward – Sully Time – for making good choices. When school nurse Jennie Christopher couldn’t comfort a child feeling overwhelmed by bellyaches caused by anxiety – taking a break with Sully helped, she says. Students who are “reluctant readers” will benefit from Sully being a willing listener, “but the intention is to use him for educational value,” Spencer says. Because of his strong “prey drive” and being easily distracted by bugs, birds, butterflies, squirrels and other critters while outdoors, Sully was unable to work as a service dog for a child with autism, Spencer tells students during Thursday’s classroom visit. “So that’s why he becomes a facility dog,” she says. Good Dog! Autism Companions had just determined that Sully could not work as a service dog for one person when Spencer began her search for a facility dog to work with students at Dunbar Intermediate in West Virginia, where she was principal for five years (Sully worked with her for two of those years). “I wasn’t necessarily looking for an autism service dog. I was just looking for a dog that could come to school. … Timing-wise, it worked out just perfectly,” says Spencer, who came home to Central Kentucky after being hired by Southside. She remembers Sully pouting “a little bit” when she put her shoes on and got her keys before heading to school – alone – on those mornings when he couldn’t come to work with her. It was “very awkward” for Spencer too. Now it’s gotten to the point, when students see Spencer in a hallway or their classroom without Sully, they ask, “Where’s Sully? What’s Sully doing?” “I don’t even say good morning to Ms. Spencer – I’m like, ‘Hi Sully, good morning,’” says Wright before adding, “They’re a package deal. And she’s been an amazing asset to the team as well.” Reynolds says hiring Spencer had everything to do with her credentials and nothing to do with Sully, but “I’m glad that he’s a part of school now. The kids love having him around.” Southside’s principal says he seldom crosses paths with Sully in the front office because Southside’s facility dog’s always out and about. “But it’s always nice to have somebody that’s happy to see you. And he’s always happy to see me,” Reynolds says. When Sully’s doing his job, Spencer says, “The only thing that he’s going to get distracted from is Cheerios (his favorite treat) and goldfish and” ... maybe, the students that he greets each morning. “These children walk in every day and they’re so excited to see Sully. They’re excited to be here,” says Wright. “… My son, he loves interacting with Sully.” “He’s my favorite part of the day,” bookkeeper and Southside mom Amanda Crowe adds.

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