Monday, May 5, 2014

Finding Inspiration in the Classroom: Danielle Kulawiak and her dog Tonka

On Friday evening I was perusing Instagram when I came across the following photo from friend and high school teacher Danielle Kulawiak:

I was both delighted and perplexed. Certainly bringing a dog into a classroom is a liability issue. How was Danielle able to allow her dog to interact with her students? After further probing, I found out that the beautiful Tonka is a certified therapy dog. I immediately wanted to know more, so Danielle was gracious to oblige my questions.

How exactly do you use Tonka in your classroom?
Danielle K Mostly he's there as a comfort. Often my kids will hang out with him on the floor while they are reading or writing. He functions as class mascot, reading buddy, and teddy bear. I've seen kids who generally are quiet and sullen come to life when Tonka is in class. It's pretty hard to be sad or cranky when you've got him there cheering you on with a "woo-woo."

This makes me wish that more classrooms had therapy dogs!
Our district has been awesome about it. Last year, one of my student's older brother died while away at college. I brought Tonka in the week before Thanksgiving when many of the kids were talking about how excited they were to have their siblings back from college. This boy spent most of the day sitting on the floor of my classroom with Tonka quietly working. It's easy to forget sometimes with high school kids who are trying to hard to be "grown up" that underneath all that bluster they are simply vulnerable children in bigger clothes than the elementary school kids.

TonkaThat must be so heartwarming to witness firsthand what a comfort he can be for your students. How often do you bring Tonka to visit?
I bring him in once or twice each month. 

What steps did you have to take to get him certified as a therapy dog?
He has been through obedience training and canine good citizenship training. Each state and organization has their own rules for what training and certification are needed and these rules vary depending on what types of things the dogs will be doing. The one thing that is consistent is the need to carry liability insurance on the dog. I would like to continue Tonka's training so that we can eventually make visits to hospitals. Any teacher thinking of using dogs should first check with their schools and then reach out to trainers in their area.

Did you intend to bring him to your classroom when you were putting him through training or did that idea come later?
We knew when we were looking for a dog that we wanted one who would be suited to therapy visits. I was inspired by seeing how the people in my grandfather's assisted living home lit up when my aunt brought her dog to visit. Then I read about dogs who visit libraries for read alouds and dogs who visit college campuses during exam weeks and it all just clicked.

I would imagine after a while, the kids start to ask when Tonka's coming back. :) 
They totally do! But I try to pick days that work out well for him, since we have a rotating block schedule, some days are more packed than others!

Thank you so much Danielle for answering my questions and for being the kind of teacher that proves education is more than just filling kids' heads with knowledge. You are clearly showing your commitment to educating the whole child and have greatly inspired me! Now I want to look into getting my dogs certified to be therapy dogs.

If you have been inspired by Danielle like I have and want more information about therapy dogs, visit the AKC website which will provide you with a listing of national and state organizations.


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