LAKE TWP. Mason was dressed in his therapy vest and had his two school guidance counselors with him while walking the halls of Hartville and Lake Elementary schools in Lake Township on a sunny Wednesday morning. Kids, teachers and staff stopped to pet and say good morning to Mason. Some of the kids gave him a big kiss. Others gave him a shy smile and a wave.
Mason is the new therapy dog that works every day, all day at Hartville and Lake Elementary Schools. He is a two-year old, specially trained golden retriever. According to his bio sheet, he likes to play fetch, read, learn new things, give high fives, get hugs, meet new friends, go on walks and visit classrooms.
Among many other things, he is tasked with supporting students in the school counseling office and promoting trust between school counselors and students.
"His focus is to make students feel more comfortable when talking about difficult things, motivate kids to complete assignments and exhibit good behavior and help kids when they are experiencing anxiety," said Katy Yoder, guidance counselor at Hartville Elementary.
"Mason likes to read and be read to and he helps with assignments such as working with fractions," said Shirley Oberdier at Lake Elementary.
On this Wednesday, Mason first visited a classroom to help students learn about good listening skills. He sat with Yoder and listened to her commands while she was reading a book about listening to the students.
Yoder asked the students what they observed Mason doing while he was listening for his commands. The kids responded quickly with a list of behaviors Mason was displaying such as sitting quietly and looking at Yoder.
He also visited a fourth-grade classroom while students were working on fractions. As Mason walked around the classroom visiting the students, the teacher asked the students to solve fractions to determine on the amount of treats they could give to Mason.
As they entered the classroom, his handlers, Yoder and Oberdier, gave him a verbal command of "go visit" and Mason visited with students in the classroom. He would return to his handlers regularly to get further instructions. Either Yoder or Oberdier would look at him and repeat the go visit command.
Mason has been trained to recognized 25 verbal commands or hand directions. A few of the commands he knows includes under for going under a table to lay down. The watch command tells him to look you in the eye and hold contact with his ears alert for another command.
Take is a command to pick something up and take it to one of his handlers. Hold means to hold something in his mouth and mark which means to touch his nose to an open hand.
"Take is one of his favorite things to do," Yoder said. "If a teacher or student drops something and he gets the take command, he will pick it up and take it to someone. He does this all the time at school and at home. He just loves doing it."
Mason was donated to the district by the group Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence (ADAI) last fall. After Yoder and Oberdier met with Mason twice and a visit the school, he became part of the district. Mason officially began working in mid-November. He lives with both of his handlers when he is not at the elementary schools.
Yoder said he spends most of his time at her home and will live with Oberdier, when needed. He was born at the University of Kentucky and trained and evaluated by the Assistance Dogs Achieving Independence (ADAI) in Toledo.
Both counselors say Mason truly listens to them and to the students with his heart. One of his jobs is to help calm students who are having anxiety or who are in crisis.
"We had one student whose own dog had passed away on a school night," Oberdier said. "The student was in crisis the next morning at school and overcome by sadness at the loss of his dog. Mason spent 45 minutes with him and sat in his lap and loved him and the student was able to return to class and finish his day out."
She said that when Mason helps a child in crisis, he remembers that child and gives him or her an extra greeting when he sees them again. He’s also used as a motivator for students.
Teachers can award extra time with Mason for kids who don’t usually don't want to complete their assignments on time. If the student completes the assignment or exhibits good behavior in the classroom, they can get extra time with Mason.
Mason spends every day at school. He works at Hartville Elementary in the mornings and spends the afternoons at Lake Elementary.
Yoder said that Mason missed working when they were on winter break. Both handlers are planning activities to keep Mason busy over the summer such as visiting nursing homes, working at the local library, or working with the Doggie Brigade at Akron Children’s Hospital.
"It’s amazing the difference dogs make," Oberdier said. "They have a calming sense about them and they love unconditionally. Plus, the impact of the smile people get when they see a dog or other animal makes a difference."
While Mason listens with is heart, he has to keep his heart fit to be able to help others. Yoder said he wears a Fitbit to record his exercise from walking around the school to make sure he is getting enough without over doing it.
Many local businesses are helping with Mason’s upkeep costs including West Side Vet Hospital in Alliance, Hartville Elevator, Hartville and Lake Elementary PTOs, American Countertops Inc., Bill Sloan of Stouffer Realty, Frost Grooming and K9 Grass.
"The kids just really love Mason already. And, Mason has fit in perfectly at both schools and he loves the kids," Yoder said.