McCORDSVILLE — Katie Williams and her dog Samantha make their way through the halls of McCordsville Elementary like celebrities, drawing smiles and giggles from students and administrators alike.
But Samantha, a 9-year-old golden retriever, is no stranger to the students. Alongside Williams, a school social worker, Samantha trots through the school doors every morning, geared up for a full day’s work.
For the past two years, Samantha, a trained therapy dog, has been a constant presence during school hours. When Williams meets with students coping with separation anxiety or troubles at home, Samantha brings the comfort only an animal can offer, Williams said.
Whether it’s by placing her paw on a student’s lap or nudging her nose at a child’s hand when she wants attention, Samantha never fails to ease students’ concerns, Williams said.
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“She has an innate instinct of what people need and how they need it,” she said. “A lot of the time, the kids need a break; they just need some comfort,” she said.
Therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort to people under stress. While a service dog might be used to lead a blind individual from place to place, therapy dogs can sense when someone is upset and will react by offering a calming gesture.
Williams spent months leading Samantha through an extensive therapy dog certification program in 2008, which involved simple commands — like teaching her to stay in one spot — but also trickier tasks, including a test in which Samantha had to walk around a pile of lunch meat without showing interest.
And the results show. Samantha doesn’t flinch when students swarm her, at times even tugging her tail and climbing atop her 65-pound frame, Williams said.
When a student gets overwhelmed in class, teachers might choose to send them to Williams’ office to seek solace, Williams said. And Samantha reliably provides the relief students need, she added.
When fifth-grader Kara McCarthy transferred to McCordsville Elementary from another school district in 2014, she felt anxious about the transition at first, the student said.
But Samantha eased Kara’s stress levels and helped her get used to the new environment. When she was having a bad day, she’d stop by Williams’ office to see Samantha, she said.
And week by week, things got easier, Kara said.
“It was just comforting to know she was there when you needed her,” Kara said. “It really feels like she’s paying attention to me; she’s just awesome.”
Alison Coulter, whose son, Ian, a kindergartner at the school, faced separation anxiety at the beginning of the year, said she’s astounded by the work Samantha and Williams can do.
When Ian struggled to adjust to the new atmosphere, Samantha and Williams would meet him outside the school at the beginning of the day to walk him to class.
“One day, things just clicked, and he went on in for himself,” Coulter said. “Sure enough, he loves his class and his teacher now.”
Williams takes lengths to ensure Samantha doesn’t present a playful distraction for students. At the beginning of each year, she walks Samantha from room to room to introduce her to students and also to lay out a few ground rules.
The first thing she explains is that Samantha doesn’t change any existing school rules. That means when students see the dog in the hallway or the cafeteria, they can’t run up to her or yell her name. She also instructs students to ask before they pet Samantha and to wash their hands after doing so.
When Williams’ day is booked with administrative meetings in conference rooms, Samantha is happy to tag along, usually opting to curl up and nap at her feet, she said.
Lauren Hedrick, a first-grade teacher at McCordsville Elementary, said when a student is having a rough day in class, she can rely on Samantha and Williams to settle the situation if need be.
And when Hedrick has a long day, she, too, can count on Samantha for a quick respite, she said.
“When I need some support, Sammy can hone in on it,” she said. “She’ll nudge her nose into my hands, and it just calms you down.”
Therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort to people under stress. While a service dog might be used to lead a blind individual from place to place, therapy dogs can sense when someone is upset and will react by offering a calming gesture, like resting their head on someone’s lap.