EASTERN HANCOCK — Standing inside the Eastern Hancock High School front office, the student bent down and hugged the light-golden colored, curly haired labradoodle named Rosie.
After getting the hug from the 1-year-old pup, the student smiled and went on her way while Rosie soaked up the affection from others in the front office getting more hugs and a few treats.
Rosie belongs to Eastern Hancock Superintendent George Philhower and is an officially trained and certified therapy dog. She became a regular at the school last spring when Philhower brought her in for a visit and realized how quickly the students and staff throughout the district loved interacting with her.
“Initially we had some teachers who were asking about bringing in a therapy dog, and the more we experienced what it was like to have a dog here, we just realized it’s one of the best things we can do for our students and staff,” Philhower said.
Eastern High School junior Charity Payton has taken on the job of overseeing Rosie throughout some of the school day as Rosie’s official student manager.
“I love this dog with all my heart, literally everything,” Charity said.
Last year, Charity, who has worked hard to deal with anxiety issues, did a presentation on the importance of therapy dogs and how animals can truly help students who deal with anxiety issues. When Philhower saw how well Charity responded to Rosie, he knew making Charity Rosie’s handler would be good for both of them.
Charity said getting a chance to work as Rosie’s manager, taking her to classes to see other students and to visit teachers throughout the district has made a positive difference in her life.
“When I used to walk into a classroom by myself, I’d be shaking and nervous, but when I’m with Rosie, I don’t shake at all and it’s so much better,” Charity said. “Rosie definitely helps a lot.”
In addition to helping students like Charity gain confidence, Rosie is an all-around good vibe to everyone in the district.
“It’s amazing how real and helpful Rosie is,” Charity said. “Earlier today, we were walking through the middle school and this kid who was having a bad day petted Rosie and said, ‘My day is already better,’” Charity said.
When Rosie isn’t with Charity, seeing other students and staff, she hangs out in a student lounge area or the front office where she gets nothing but attention and treats.
Megan Whisman is the front office secretary who has a special stash of animal crackers just for Rosie, who will sit and shake hands to earn a treat.
“Kids know Rosie’s schedule, when she’ll be in the office, and they stop by just to see Rosie and that includes teachers,” Whisman said.
Whisman and Philhower both noted the dog is making a big difference with students particularly those who are visibly upset or down in the hall ways. Most students will change their demeanor as soon as they see Rosie.
“It does not matter what age, from kindergarten to through high school, the kids all react positively to Rosie,” Philhower said.
While Rosie has developed many friendships throughout the district, she’s developed a special bond with middle and high school principal Adam Barton. Just the other day when Barton was away from the building at a meeting, Whisman sent him a photo of Rosie laying at his office door, pouting, waiting for him to come back.
“I used to go to training classes on the same night as Rosie with my dog,” Barton said. “I think she remembers that.”
Barton knows how important it is for students to get unconditional love, and that’s something, he said they always get from Rosie.
“She’s gonna be sweet to them and her tail is gonna be wagging and that allows kids to walk in the door and have that feeling of acceptance,” Barton said. “We always want to find ways to connect with students and when you walk a dog up to a kid, there is a connection and you get a chance to talk to the kid.”
Philhower noted when he takes Rosie home every night, she’s tired and sleeps well but is eager to jump in the car first thing the next morning when he drives himself and his two children to school.
“It’s a rare day when Rosie does not come, and on days when I can’t bring her, my daughter will bring her so she’s always here,” Philhower said.
The district has another certified and trained therapy dog named Ernie. He however sticks to the elementary school mostly where he works and comforts students in Amber Jenkins’ special education class.
“We’re in favor of having dogs here because we see how much of a positive difference dogs can make in everyone’s life,” Philhower said.