Dexter the Dog is on the job at Mill Creek Middle School this year
Alan Warren | For AnnArbor.com
Students at Mill Creek Middle School in Dexter will soon be met at the doors with a woof and a wet nose.
Dexter the Dog, a therapeutic dog donated to the school by the Dexter Rotary Club, will be making his rounds through the school starting this month.
Administrators hope Dexter, a 19-month-old black lab, will be a calming presence in the school and can even become a catalyst for problem solving.
The idea to place a dog in a Dexter school originated with Steve Gergely, president of the Dexter Rotary Club. Gergely saw a TV news clip last year about Caesar, a dog at Maltby Intermediate School in Brighton. “It talked about what it meant for the school, and I thought, 'Wow, there’s no reason we can’t do that here in Dexter,’” Gergely said.
He made a few calls and put together a report for his fellow Rotary members, which was met with much enthusiasm. One of the members, Rob Glass, the previous Dexter superintendent, casually mentioned it to school administrators to see what they thought of the idea.
Jami Bronson, the principal at Mill Creek, is very forward thinking and jumped on the idea right away,” Gergely said. “So we took the school nurse and counselor and made a trip to Brighton to see Caesar in action. Our mouths were just wide open that day - we couldn’t believe what the dog meant to those kids.”
The staff at Maltby found that kids would gravitate to the dog, and those who were having problems at school or home would open up about their concerns if the dog was around. One student who had lots of anxiety and fear about school Â¬- never missed another day once the school arranged for Caesar to meet her at the bus stop every day. She didn’t want to disappoint Caesar when she knew he was waiting for her.
The Rotary raised $8,000 to cover the purchase of the dog and its training. ‘We figure that was well worth it for a lifetime investment,” said Gergely. “The trainers will be there for the life of the dog if we need to go back and train him for a new skill down the road.”
After raising money internally and through a grant from Rotary International, the club ended up a bit short on money. LaFontaine Chevrolet in Dexter stepped up and made up the difference.
“The school will have no expenditures at all,” said Gergely. “We have covered everything from dog food to veterinary care for the life of the dog. The school will own the dog, and we will just stay in the background and help as they need us.”
The Rotary lined up a group of enthusiastic supporters who will donate their services for the care of the dog including the Dexter Pharmacy, Lane Animal Hospital, Village Animal Clinic of Dexter, Dexter Dog Grooming, Canidae Corp. and Dexter Mill.
Dexter was trained by Lori Grigg, of Paradise Dog Training in Fenton, who also trained Caesar, and a dog named Henry housed at Henry Ford Hospital.
“The presence of a dog in a hospital or school setting brings comfort and alleviates stress and anxiety,” said Grigg.
Grigg is training a team of 10 Mill Creek staff members who will serve as the Dexter's handlers while at the school. They will undergo 220 hours of training.
When not on duty, Dexter stays with local resident and Mill Creek parent Sue McCarthy, who was handpicked to be his keeper. She will bring Dexter to school each morning and pick him up every afternoon.
“When Dexter takes his red vest off, he knows he is not working and allowed to be a regular dog,” said McCarthy, adding Dexter enjoys chasing toys in the yard with their other dogs.
Bronson is working with her staff to plan how to use Dexter during the school day. She has asked each team of teachers to put together a list of ways they would like to implement Dexter in the classroom.
“We are still in the preliminary stages to see how we can best use him,” Bronson said. “The teachers are very eager to have them in their classrooms, and we will be adding tasks as we go along.”
This will most likely include reading to him, as he is trained to lay his head against the reader and make eye contact with him or her. One-on-one time with the dog may also be used as a reward for students for a job well done. He also may take walks to other nearby Dexter schools and will most likely appear at local games and parades.
Dexter made his official appearance at Mill Creek during an open house last week so incoming seventh- and eighth-graders and their parents could meet him.
Most everybody stopped and petted the dog as he walked the halls, and students flocked to him when he was at ease on the floor. Ethan Reynolds, 12, even took a picture of him for his cell phone. “He’s really friendly,” said student Owen Telesco. “He’s going to make people more social.”
Telesco’s father Steve is all for it as well. “I think it’s great. I’m a dog lover myself. I think the help he will provide especially for people with special needs is fantastic.”
Joanne McGinnis, parent of an incoming seventh-grader and a speech therapist by trade, agrees. “It is well documented that dogs have a relaxing and calming effect in a school,” she said.
Her son Ryan found Dexter to be a good-natured dog. “This dog seems pretty cool," he said.
Gergely said the project to bring Dexter to the school has received widespread community support. “As soon as people find out about the dog they want to be a part of it. I have more people volunteering than we have things for them to do. It’s really been amazing.”
For her part, Bronson is grateful to the Rotary for presenting the school with Dexter. “It is the nature of our school to take on these kinds of interesting projects, and we are so thankful to the Rotary for bringing this to us," she said. "The Rotary has done all the work and picked up every cost and now we have this beautiful dog. We can’t thank them enough.”