It was quiet in Jamie Fritz’s kindergarten class at Culver Elementary School — until one her students spotted a dog strolling into the classroom and yelled, “Stetson is here!”
Immediately, the kids flocked to the dog and started to gently pet and snuggle with it.
Stetson sat like a statue, his wagging tail the only giveaway that he felt the love.
Stetson adores Culver’s kids, said his owner, Betty Nitschelm.
“If they’re not piling on him, he’ll pile on them,” she said, laughing.
But Stetson, an 8-year-old pointing yellow Labrador retriever who was recently inducted into the Oregon Animal Hall of Fame, is more than a cute plaything for the 662 K-12 students in Culver School District. Stetson, and Nitschelm’s other dog, Asa, a 6-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, are certified therapy dogs trained to comfort people in a variety of situations.
They’ve been loyal companions for a high school student who’s been socially excluded because of her speech impediment. They’ve helped students traumatized by dogs overcome their fears.
And about five years ago, Stetson comforted members of the Culver Middle School football team, who lost one of their coaches to a heart attack.
“Just holding the dog … it slowly takes away your sadness, helps you get through the day a little bit easier,” said Joe Russo, 18, a senior at Culver High School who was in seventh grade when the coach died.
The director of the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association isn’t sure if there are other full-time therapy dogs working full time in Oregon schools like Stetson and Asa, and an Oregon Department of Education representative could only name one other dog — and it only worked four days a week. Meanwhile, either Stetson and Asa are available to support Culver’s students every school day.
Nitschelm, Culver High’s leadership teacher, began bringing Stetson to school about seven years ago. Three years ago, she started bringing Asa.
Although their main job is working with K-12 students in Culver, the dogs are also a part of the Tri-County Crisis Team, which has visited nearly every school district in Central Oregon, as well as Boy Scout and Rotary meetings, to help people who are grieving.
“It just makes (people) feel like they’re unconditionally loved when they are with these dogs,” Nitschelm said. “In particular, Stetson is very empathetic; when somebody’s distraught, he gets it.”
The two dogs have different roles within the schools due to their different personalities.
The calmer Stetson is used with elementary and middle school students, while the more boisterous Asa typically works with high schoolers. Any student can walk one of the dogs during the school day, or visit the leadership room and pet or snuggle with them. The only boundaries Nitschelm gives students, particularly younger ones, is to treat the dogs gently and not to yell at them.
Stefanie Garber, Culver School District’s superintendent and its elementary school principal, said the intuitive dogs are a valuable resource for grieving or stressed students.
“Some of the kids talk to them; the dogs know all of their secrets. Some of them, just the presence of a heartbeat and a wagging tail is what they love,” she said. “I think they bring joy and support to children in a way that we grown-ups don’t.”
Stetson and Asa help students in less serious ways, as well. Fritz joked that Stetson managed to get her kindergartners to eat their yogurt, rather than only pick out the candy bits.
“(Nitschelm) showed them that Stetson loves yogurt, and then, everybody ate their yogurt that day,” she said. “It was pretty awesome.”
The high school students in Nitschelm’s leadership class particularly adore Stetson and Asa. They know their favorite human foods — Stetson likes Cup O’Noodles while Asa has an affinity for bananas and Cheez-It crackers — and they play games with the dogs. Senior Avery Oppenlander, 18, said she messes with Nitschelm by having the mischievous Asa hide somewhere in the leadership classroom.
The students said the dogs can help raise their spirits after a rough day.
“You don’t have to have someone sitting there asking, ‘How are you feeling? Are you okay?’” said senior Alyssa Nelson, 17. “You can have the dog come and sit in your lap and say, ‘Hi, I’m here, pet me.’”
Throughout all of Culver’s schools, the dogs are treated like rock stars. When Nitschelm walks through the hallways of the elementary school, it takes extra time to get anywhere. Everywhere there are wide-eyed kids who squeal and have the urge to pet Stetson.
“They’ve become part of our society here at our school,” she said. “When I come (into a room), and I don’t have a dog with me, people don’t say, ‘Good morning, Mrs. Nitschelm,’ they say, ‘Where’s the dog?’”
In March, Stetson was inducted into the Oregon Animal Hall of Fame for his seven years of therapy work — a moment that Nitschelm said brought her to tears. He’s been a local celebrity since, she said.
“I had paid for something at the grocery store with my credit card, and my last name is obviously unique,” she said. “The check-out person said, ‘You’re the one with that dog!’ It’s been a bit overwhelming.”
But perhaps nobody loves Stetson and Asa more than the students and staff in Culver. And Nitschelm hopes that other school districts will notice the dogs’ impact and will get therapy dogs of their own.
“If one person can change their mind or perception about what animals, and in particular dogs, can do for people, then all that we do here is worth it,” she said. “In a perfect world, every school would have a dog.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7854, firstname.lastname@example.org