ELKTON – When Wendee Constable was a student at Harrisonburg High School, she volunteered at a veterinary clinic across from the old high school.
The agent walked on Tuesdays and Fridays and accompanied the veterinarian on home visits. During her volunteer days, she was introduced to the mastiff dog breed and fell in love. She always knew she wanted one herself someday.
The kindergarten teacher at River Bend Elementary School not only made her wish come true, she now has three mastiffs. His first, Tug, is no longer with Constable, but Gabriel and Odin are.
Gabriel is one of 11 therapy dogs who work with Rockingham County Public Schools. Gabriel is 6 years old, weighs 218 pounds and is bigger than most of the students who come to him for comfort.
Although Gabriel mainly stays in Constable’s kindergarten class – for insurance purposes Gabriel must stay with Constable at all times – they go out during recess and do things with the older children in the morning. If a student wants to visit Gabriel, they can write him a letter requesting a visit. Additionally, students who are having a difficult day may be sent to spend time with Gabriel before returning to their classroom.
âSometimes kids just need a reset,â Constable said. “They will come down and spend time with Gabriel, then leave with a different mindset.”
Gabriel may be tall, but he is very docile and patient as he has many hands caressing him and hugging him.
The agent knew from the start that Gabriel would be a good therapy dog ââand had him tested and certified by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Gabriel has been with Constable since he was a 12 week old 30 pound puppy. He started working as a therapy dog ââat the age of 1. The agent said it remains to be seen whether Odin will become a therapy dog ââas well.
“He has to work on his manners first,” she said.
Constable’s students are clearly in love with their furry fellow.
Ebyn Cooper said Gabriel “loves cheese and can read”. Gabriel can recognize the written words sit, sit and woof.
âIt’s a lot of fun,â said Jacob Davis, a kindergarten child. “When I see him here, I’m happy.”
âHe makes me happy every day,â Haven Lantz said.
There are 11 schools in Rockingham County Public Schools that have therapy dogs, said Doug Alderfer, deputy superintendent of leadership and administration.
Schools that have therapy dogs are: John Wayland Elementary School, Cub Run Elementary School, Peak View Elementary School, Linville-Edom Elementary School, River Bend Elementary School, Elementary School John C. Myers, Elkton Middle School, J. Frank Hillyard Middle School, Montevideo Middle School, and Spotswood High School.
RCPS has allowed therapy dogs since the 2018-19 school year.
âTherapy dogs are a safe and calming influence for students of all ages,â Alderfer said. âDogs show unconditional affection and acceptance, regardless of the circumstances. It is very comforting for the students.
Members of the Harrisonburg School Board discussed adding a policy allowing therapy dogs in schools at their September 7 meeting. There was some concern about students not wanting to be around dogs and the process of reporting this information and to whom.