Jovi won’t be the first dog that Golembeski brings to school. She says a few years ago, principal Rebecca Fillion asked her to bring in one of her retired therapy dogs, Elory. She ended up bringing him in twice a week, and she says the differences she saw in her students with intensive needs were astounding.
“When I started bringing Elory in, I started seeing some kids who were nonverbal become verbal,” says Golembeski. “I saw kids with severe behavior challenges whose escalated behavior dropped. I’ve trained guide dogs for a long time and I’ve known the power of dogs, but it took me by surprise. It was truly beautiful.”
One of Twin Valley Elementary School’s tenets is that without a relationship, there can be no education. Golembeski credits the transformation she saw in her students to the relationship they were able to form with Elory.
“It’s easier, in some situations, to have a relationship with an animal,” says Golembeski. “They don’t judge, they don’t question, they don’t have expectations of behavior or performance. They’re going to love you no matter what. We do as teachers too, but there are some times when some of our own frustrations may come into the relationship, and kids are smart and pick up on everything. A dog doesn’t get frustrated. It’s easy to have a relationship with a dog. My perception is that for the kids it made a big difference for, they found it easy to have that relationship.”
Golembeski says that although she noticed strong therapeutic effects in her intensive needs students, the positive impact of Elory was felt schoolwide. “Every single student in the school loved seeing him,” says Golembeski. “They learned respectful boundaries with him, they learned they had to ask if they wanted to pet him. I had kids read to him. We were able to incorporate all types of educational lessons with him - a little bit of math, body awareness, verbalization. I utilized him in a lot of ways that even surprised me, and he was a calming presence in the building and something the kids looked forward to.”
Golembeski says that although Elory is still with her family, he’s 14 years old, and working with kids became too tiring for him. So last year, Elory didn’t join Golembeski at school, and his absence was felt. “Becca kept teasing me and asking when I was going to get a puppy,” says Golembeski.
Finally, she did. Jovi, who will live most of his life as a therapy dog, is eight weeks old and is currently under the care of Kami and her husband, who are training him for his future.
“My husband and I have raised seven other puppies for guide schools before,” says Golembeski. “We get the puppies when they’re about eight weeks old and keep them for a year, or a little over a year depending on their maturity level. And then we return them to the school.”
Jovi is from Freedom Dog Guide School, a nonprofit organization in upstate New York that breeds, raises, trains, and places guide dogs.
“In his first year, the biggest things we’ll teach him are basic skills like potty training, sit, down, and come,” says Golembeski. “We also need to socialize him. That’s the most important job I have. Get him used to people and sounds and distractions. He has to be able to work through distractions and be OK if a fire truck goes by. To be able to access stores, restaurants, supermarkets, and every place one might have to go to.”
Jovi will be changing and maturing as the year goes on. “He’s learning alongside the kids,” says Golembeski. For now, she plans to have Jovi with her at least one day a week, but Golembeski says just like kids, puppies go through phases as they grow. As Jovi’s needs change, Golembeski may adjust how much time he spends at the school.
Golembeski hopes that with Jovi as part of the school community this year, the students will remember the lessons Elory taught them as well as learn some new ones.
“I’m hoping that our kids see what a selfless act this is, and that it’s an act of kindness,” says Golembeski. “We’re all going to fall in love with Jovi. We’re all going to watch him grow and learn. And at the end of the school year, they’re going to go on to their next chapter of education, and Jovi’s going to do the same thing. He has some big shoes to fill. He’s not meant to be my pet. That’s not his destiny. He’s meant to be a hero to somebody and do great things.”