BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — The newest member of the of the Fallen Timbers Middle School staff enjoys belly rubs, carrying toys in his mouth and chasing squirrels.
As the new therapy dog for the 500-plus students at the school for fifth- and sixth-graders, Astro will calm anxious students, assist in classroom lessons and greet children entering the building each day.
The 2-1/2-year-old black Labrador retriever will also sit in on individual sessions with students, who are more apt to talk while petting a dog, said counselor Jenny Minni.
“As creative as we can be – that’s what Astro can do,” she said.
While the school applied for a dog with the Ability Center’s assistance dog program two years ago, the typical wait time is three to five years, so the staff was surprised in May to learn that Astro was ready. A team including Minni, principal Dr. James Brian Bocian, teacher Carla Rygalski and secretary Heather Hertzfeld underwent intense summer training with the Ability Center in preparation for Astro.
“I thought the training would be intuitive, from having my own dog,” Bocian said. “I learned a lot. The big thing is reinforcement.”
Every day, one of the team members must spend at least 15 minutes working with Astro on 36 commands printed on flash cards. These include a range of actions, such as Easy, Go Visit, Jump, Finish and Leave It. If done correctly, the trainer follows up with “Yes” and a treat.
In a demonstration, Bocian commanded, “Secret,” and Astro walked up to the principal and sniffed in his ear.
“Yes,” Bocian said, responding with a low-calorie treat.
Astro received over two years of training prior to his arrival at FTMS – including living with a prison inmate for several months, and then serving in Tiffin City Schools.
“I’m amazed at the amount of effort and care that goes into everything they do,” Hertzfeld said of the program.
While he’s not at FTMS, Astro will live with Minni’s family – which includes a King Charles Cavalier spaniel named Calvin. Because Astro might also spend time at the homes of Bocian, Hertzfeld and Rygalski, Ability Center representatives supervised meet-ups with those family dogs to check for compatibility.
The Rygalski family is familiar with the program on a more personal level, starting out as dog-sitters and then becoming a foster family in 2020. Rygalski attended class once a week with each foster dog, learning the commands and preparing the dog for placement with an individual or organization.
“People would ask me, ‘How do you give the dogs up?’ I tell them that when you see the consumer and how the dogs are helping them better their lives, it’s worth it,” Rygalski said.
Astro’s home turf will be Rygalski’s classroom when he’s not hanging out in the counselor’s office. She’s planning to utilize Astro in lesson plans such as a “Where’s Astro?” game in which Astro can pull geography clues out of a basket. Mostly, Rygalski expects to see a lot more smiles in her classroom from Astro’s presence.
“The kids’ faces light up. They’re excited,” she said, adding that Astro will also have a calming effect on students. “Just petting a dog calms kids down.”
As his children attended Waterville Primary School, the district’s first therapy dog, Sara, was on the staff, Bocian said.
“Sara added so much to the climate of the school,” he said. “When I told the other principals about our opportunity to have a dog, all of them said it was a great thing for students.”
Sara served at Waterville from 2008 until 2019, when she retired and was replaced by Teila, who is now 4 years old. White-house Primary School’s golden retriever, Luna, joined the school in 2019, as well. Monclova Primary welcomed Laney in 2017, and she’s now 6 years old.