Oakley has big paws to fill, but the educators who are counting on her believe she’s up for the task.
The two-year-old black Labrador Retriever made a surprise debut April 30 as the new therapy dog for Wauseon’s elementary and middle schools. She succeeds Kramer, a black Labradoodle who served the school district for 10 years before succumbing to throat and tongue cancer last June, just days after turning 12 years old.
Trained by Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence (ADAI), a program of The Ability Center in Sylvania, Oakley was purchased by the school district for $2,000. The fee was collected through fundraisers and assistance from the Wauseon Rotary Club.
She was introduced to the schools’ students during an assembly that began as a tribute to Kramer, whose death was never officially addressed.
“They flipped out” over Oakley’s appearance, said Joe Friess, middle school principal. “It’s just one of those moments that you just kind of hope for. Everybody was pretty excited.”
In time, Oakley will fulfill Kramer’s duties which included working alongside the school speech therapist and visiting the residents of Fulton Manor in Wauseon. She will also visit the district’s primary school, and will likely attend sporting and extracurricular school events.
“Right now, she’s getting used to the routine, and getting to know the building,” Friess said. He said he and elementary school principal Theresa Vietmeier, whose schools will primarily share Oakley’s therapy skills, are still acclimating themselves to the new dog. That includes continually reinforcing use of the 30 commands she’s been taught and getting to know her personality.
“English is a hard language for them to learn, and and once they learn it you have to be pretty precise in the commands,” Friess said. “Some of it’s just building that relationship…That’s part of the training, too, just to spend time with her and talk to her. I haven’t seen the playful part of her. I’m sure there is. They’re trained that, when the vest is on, they’re working.”
Vietmeier and the elementary school guidance counselor attended a week-long training course for Oakley at ADAI. On June 25, Vietmeier will join representatives from other school districts to swap ideas on how to use their therapy dogs. Friess already went through training for Kramer but will attend a refresher session this summer.
Because Kramer lived with Friess they formed a special bond that wasn’t broken with the dog’s death. For that reason, Oakley will bunk at the Vietmeier home.
“Kramer’s still kind of there. It’s still kind of lingering,” Friess said of his home.
And because Kramer began his duties at the former Burr Road Middle School, he remained during those years more isolated from the other school buildings. Friess plans to remedy that situation with Oakley.
“I’d like her to be much more of a district-wide kind of dog,” he said.
Vietmeier said taking on a therapy dog increases her responsibilities but the benefits outweigh the negatives.
“It helps the students, it helps the morale, it helps the climate, and it creates a homey atmosphere in a school setting, which just benefits everybody,” she said.
A therapy dog can calm students with testing anxiety, those who struggle with reading, and those with problems originating outside the school, Vietmeier said.
“That’s where we really see the benefits, just helping in that climate, helping bring down a student’s emotional state to one that is calm, and then they can be efficient in the classroom,” she said. “We know so much more now about the brain. We know so much more about learning, and what are the things that cultivate learning and can be a catalyst for learning. So if it helps us, why not? If you’re in an emotional state you can’t think… and you hit a wall in school. It happens, and we want to help you with that.
“Not having Kramer left a bit of a hole. We wanted to fill that gap as best we can. She’s not going to replace Kramer. She’s her own personality, but she will fill that void of Kramer’s job. When this ‘18-‘19 school year starts, I think she’s just going to be bang on.”
Vietmeier said Oakley also helps the teaching staff, members of whom periodically pop into her office after a hard day to spend a moment with the dog.
She praised Friess for continuing the program after Kramer’s death, “recognizing the need, and wanting to carry on the legacy that Kramer started.”
Friess said while there’s no replacing Kramer, he already feels a kinship with Oakley.
“The kids are ready for it. I’m ready to do it because the kids are,” he said. “It’s really just all about the kids, when they’re having a bad day. “(Oakley’s) job is just to be there for you. It’s just a soothing, constant presence. I’m grateful that she’s here.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.