Sit, roll over, fetch: Students learn social skills from therapy dog Duke

Quintana Varela, 14, of Woodstock, gives Duke, a labradoodle school therapy dog, some attention as her classmates read a story about Duke in their classroom at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – Duke, an 11-month-old labradoodle, supplies endless happiness and kisses to students and staff in Shenandoah County Public Schools.

Heather Pugh, an occupational therapist who works with special needs students, brings Duke, her three-quarter poodle, one-quarter Labrador retriever mix dog, to her therapy sessions with students to teach them assertiveness through commands, motor skills through agility training and self-regulation.

Pugh said she purchased Duke from a breeder in Strasburg when the dog was between 10 and 12 weeks old for the purpose of training him to assist her in occupational therapy sessions. The reason she chose Duke was because of his good, laid-back temperament and because he is a low-shed dog.

When she first met with the breeder, Duke came up to her and lie down next to her. He picked her and she fell in love with him.

“He’s amazing with the kids,” she added.

Gabe Howard-Wolford, 13, of Maurertown, lays on the floor of his classroom with Duke. Rich Cooley/Daily

Pugh said Duke participates with her occupational therapy sessions, working on the students’ fine motor skills. Duke has a Velcro vest that the students can put items on and take off of Duke to strengthen their hands. He also works with a special needs group where the students use agility equipment to teach Duke how to run through a tunnel and other equipment. At the same time, the kids are learning social skills and communication as they teach Duke the tricks.

“It’s a really nice opportunity for those kids to work on social skills and they really feel like they’ve done something because they’ve trained him,” she added.

The kids also wrote and illustrated a book about how to interact with a dog and dog safety, and they have a hard copy of the book in their classroom, she said. Duke will sit in the middle of the reading group as they read him the story and give him plenty of belly rubs.

Duke will also be working with students on self-regulation, which she said is the ability of the students to regulate the level of excitement they experience throughout the day. She wants the students to understand what level of excitement they are at during the day and use strategies to change these levels.

Duke has also become a friendly furry face among the staff as well. When walking through the school hallways, Duke knows which staff members have treats stored away for him and will seek them out.

Heather Pugh, an occupational therapist, walks her labradoodle therapy dog Duke across the walkway outside Peter Muhlenberg Middle School in Woodstock. Pugh uses the dog in several classes as a teaching aid for students. Rich Cooley/Daily

“It’s been great,” Pugh said about having Duke in the schools.

Duke will also be starring in Peter Muhlenberg Middle School’s musical performance of “Annie” in the spring and has been attending their practices to get ready for his musical debut.

This is the first year Duke has been at the school. He is still a therapy dog in training and must wear a vest stating his status when in the schools. Pugh said Shenandoah County has a policy that states once the dog is 6 months old and with an experienced handler, he can be in the school without the certification.

Duke’s training is getting him ready for his exam, like the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test that requires a dog to be well-behaved during various scenarios, such as loud surroundings and walking past another dog. Pugh said she trains Duke through the guidance of the Pet Partners program with a list of at least 30 tests he will have to master. He will take the certification test once he becomes 1 year old.

“The great part about Shenandoah County letting me have him in here before he’s certified is I have no qualms about him passing that test because if we can walk down the hallway when the middle school changes classes then we’re golden, we’re so good,” she said.

Ben Schleig, 13 ,of Strasburg, coaxes Duke to run through this tunnel inside his classroom at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

Pugh said she began training Duke slowly since he was bought at such a young age. She began by bringing him in for a couple hours a day, then a couple days a week and now he is at the schools most of the week.

She added that she has trained him to know that when his vest is on, he must be calm, but said once they get home and the vest comes off, he’s a rambunctious, playful dog who isn’t afraid to roll around in the mud.

Contact staff writer Kaley Toy at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or ktoy@nvdaily.com

Heather Pugh gives Duke some affection. Rich Cooley/Daily