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Maura, an aspiring therapy dog, shows the limitless nature of agriculture education

Hillsboro Public Schools has a new student. Sort of. The school's ag program's small animal care class is teaching Maura, a 4-month-old golden retriever, to be a therapy dog.

A golden retriever puppy wearing a black harness extends a paw to a human hand.
Maura, the therapy dog in training at Hillsboro Public Schools, demonstrates her ability to shake hands on Feb. 15, 2022.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek
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HILLSBORO, N.D. — “Maura, sit. Maura, down. Good girl.”

The 4-month-old golden retriever sniffs at Fernando Rios’s hand, tail wagging as she follows his commands. After getting her treat, she follows more commands, to shake, give knuckles, give high fives and get into and on top of a box.

When she settles on top of the small box, Maura is rewarded not just with the treat from Rios but also from enthusiastic petting from six sets of hands.

The five ninth graders and one tenth grader in the Hillsboro Public Schools small animal care class are training Maura to serve as a therapy dog, a pilot program at the school. And while the happy golden puppy is getting the training, agriculture teacher Levi Reese sees the class and project as a way of training and preparing his students for life.

“They get those tangible or life skills they need to be a better citizen and make it through life a lot better and that’s what I look for,” he said.

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Reese is in his 18th year of teaching agriculture, the first 10 coming at Lakota (N.D.) High School and the rest in Hillsboro. He strives to present his students with hands-on learning activities that help to live out the FFA motto: Learning to Do, Doing to Learn, Earning to Live, Living to Serve.

'A little moment of happiness'

A golden retriever puppy sits calmly in a high school gym. She is on a leash. In the background, kids are playing basketball
Hillsboro Public Schools students have embraced Maura, and students and teachers appear to be happier and less anxious with her around. Photo taken Feb. 15, 2022.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek

Reese’s veterinary science class in 2020 championed the idea of training a therapy dog in class. They worked up a proposal, but the COVID-19 pandemic “put that on the back burner for awhile.”

This school year, a student teacher brought a dog into class during the first semester, and the small animal care class got to learn some basics in animal care. And Reese decided to try again with the idea of having the class train a therapy dog.

The program has three objectives: providing hands-on learning experience for the veterinary science and small animal care classes, providing comfort and support to students and staff at Hillsboro Public School, and reducing anxiety and depression students.

Numerous parties play a hand in the program. Reese’s family provides out-of-school care for Maura as well as feed and veterinary care. Ag classes help train and care for Maura at the school. The counseling and special education departments determine times that would be beneficial for Maura to be with them and determine which students could benefit from spending time with Maura. The principals and superintendent work to determine times to work Maura into the school schedules and identify secondary handlers. The school board allows Maura to be in the school and covers the liabilities of having the dog in the school.

The school board approved the program as a pilot project, and Maura joined Hillsboro students at the beginning of the second semester. Reese said most of the students who originally championed the idea of training a dog in class have graduated, but they still were excited to hear that the school would take on the program.

A golden retriever puppy is shown in the middle of a group of teenagers. Four students are visible: a boy in a blue hooded sweatshirt, a girl in a flannel shirt, a boy in a black sweatshirt and a hat and a girl in a red shirt. The dog is looking at the boy in the blue sweatshirt.
The small animal care class at Hillsboro Public Schools is made up of six students who were friends before the class began and tended to be fairly shy, agriculture teacher Levi Reese says. Training therapy dog Maura has helped bring them out of their shells. Photo taken Feb. 15, 2022.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek

The six small animal care students are not the typical ag class students. While one works on a farm, the other five do not have farming backgrounds. Reese said it’s a shy group that has blossomed with Maura in class. He’s watched them become less timid as they take Maura out to interact with the student body.

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The class has learned anatomy, veterinary care and basics in training. But they’ve also learned how the therapy part of training a therapy dog works.

Carolyn Hall, a freshman student in the class, said she’s seen total changes in the demeanor of normally emotionless students when they bend down to interact with Maura.

“They see her, and they just smile,” she said. “They get down and pet her. It just, like, gives them a little break from school and they feel happy in that moment. It gives them a little moment of happiness.”

A man walks a dog on a leash through a high school hallway. The dog is heading into a classroom off the right hand side of the photo. In the background to the left are a group of students.
Hillsboro Public Schools ag teacher and FFA adviser Levi Reese says having Maura the therapy dog at school has improved the moods of students and teachers alike, and he credits Maura with helping keep him in the teaching profession after a couple years full of stressors. Photo taken Feb. 15, 2022.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek

And it isn’t just students who are benefiting. Reese said teachers and staff have similar encounters with Maura. Plus, he credits Maura’s presence with helping him decide to remain a teacher.

The past couple years have been filled with additional stressors for teachers, he explained, listing virtual school, having students out of class for extended periods and constantly changing expectations as some of the issues. Those stressors have compounded with the kind of issues many people are dealing with in their daily lives, including daycare struggles, quarantines and more. But Maura and her impact on the school have changed Reese’s own perception, with the business manager mentioning to him that he’s been in a better mood since Maura came.

“Bringing her to school and having her here has changed my outlook on teaching and what I do,” he said.

Learning life skills

A teacher on a stool speaks to students sitting on the floor. In the back left of the photo is a golden retriever puppy.
The students in the small animal care class taught by Levi Reese, seated at top right, aren't necessarily looking for careers in agriculture, but they say the hands-on and real-world skills taught by Reese give them a better idea of their futures and skills they can use. Photo taken Feb. 15, 2022.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek

The small animal care class will continue to work with Maura and find new things to train her; she’s already far exceeded their expectations for the year. The goals of the therapy dog program going forward include either breeding Maura or bringing in other dogs for classes to train as therapy dogs for other locations.

Since word of the program started to get out, Reese has heard from other educators interested in doing something similar. There is no standardized curriculum for having a high school class train a therapy dog, but Reese is excited about the potential for the idea.

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“We’re creating it as we go,” he said.

A man and six students face a camera. The man is on the far left. The boy standing second to the left is holding a golden retriever puppy.
The Hillsboro Public Schools small animal care class, at the helm of Levi Reese, far left, has worked on training golden retriever Maura to be a therapy dog for the school. Photo taken Feb. 15, 2022.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek

Reese teaches ag to all of the seventh and eighth grade students throughout the course of the year, as well as about 50 high school students. He said he’ll keep trying to come up with new ideas to engage not only the traditional ag students but also all of the students who can benefit from knowing more about the agriculture industry.

After small animal care, his next class of the day was learning about meat processing. In that class, seven students were smoking meat and salmon, using a $1,000 North Dakota Beef Commission grant for new knives and cutting boards. The students also built their own smokers for the meat science class.

While none of the six small animal care students have any immediate future goals of going into agriculture, they see how the hands-on nature of the classes helps prepare them for careers. Rios said he never knew how to cut or measure wood or how to weld before taking shop class, and he found those to be fun experiences that taught life skills. And Hall said the classes certainly help students in testing out their interests.

“Agriculture is connected to everybody’s everyday life, even if they don’t think about it,” she said. “This class just kind of brings to light how it’s incorporated into our everyday life and important, and it’s teaching us skills that I think everyone should have, you know, when they mature and become an adult.”

Related Topics: AGRICULTUREAGRICULTURE EDUCATIONNORTH DAKOTAAGWEEKTVGFH INSTAGRAM
Jenny Schlecht is the editor of Agweek and Sugarbeet Grower Magazine. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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