‘River’ the therapy dog makes school more fun at Amherst Elementary

Published: Mar. 12, 2021 at 6:30 PM CST
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - The principal of Amherst Elementary School began pushing for a therapy dog a few years ago. In fact, she says she wanted one in the school when she was a kindergarten teacher as far back as 2002.

Last march, that wish was realized. One week before lockdown. Enter ‘River.’

“I think having her here has given them something to look forward to, something a little more normal in their day. Even though it’s a completely abnormal thing to have a dog in school, but for our students it’s very normal,” said Principal Sherry Oleson

River began her training in a school empty of students. Oleson said this was actually beneficial because it got her used to the building without all of the overstimulation of the kids.

Still, she sent them postcards throughout the spring. She even took part in Read Across America, sending out a video of her reading her favorite book, The Big Umbrella.

Student Zach says she now greets them at the door, and serves as a reward at other times of the day.

“When Mrs. Olsen chooses Falcon Feathers and in the morning,” Zach said, explaining the reward system for good deeds.

Oleson says River’s presence can be distracting at times, but they’re working on that.

“We’re also training the kids at times to ignore her, so that she can be in a classroom, and just support by being there at times as opposed to needing to be touched and needing to be interacted with,” she said.

Oleson says River is a calming factor at times of student and teacher stress. She said when you are at your wits’ end with everything going on in the world there is no better balm. In addition, she’s also having some unexpected effects on the kids.

“One that I am very certain of was at the beginning of the year afraid of dogs and afraid of her, and never wanted River close to her, and this morning when we were standing out, it just happened this morning, that she knelt down by River and pet her for the first time,” Oleson said.

Student Nero put it in the simplest and most direct terms:

“I really enjoy River, and I think River enjoys me. Right, River?” he said.

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