Ethan Kennedy’s face lit up when he arrived in Linda Nevulis’ office at the Schoharie Central School the first week of classes.
The second-grader was excited to see the school’s newest staff member — Buckles, a “social therapeutic classroom assistance dog” — that arrived at the school district in July.
Trained by the Princeton, Mass., based National Education for Assistance Dog Services, or NEADS, Buckles is a 2-year-old golden retriever awarded to the school as a prize for the school’s victory in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest.
Buckles lives with Nevulis, the district’s director of curriculum and pupil personnel services, and rides to school each day to face a variety of responsibilities.
Buckles can open doors, turn the lights on and off, retrieve a set of keys somebody drops and a variety of other tricks. But his most important task so far has been helping students with their behavior, teachers said.
Kennedy, 7, got to take Buckles for a walk during the first week of school after earning all his stickers for good behavior, his teacher Mara Staffield said.
“He works really hard to come see Buckles,” she said. Kennedy impressed his teacher by going a step beyond searching for a reward for himself — he asked to share his prize by bringing a friend along for the walk.
Established in 1976, the nonprofit NEADS has provided more than 1,300 highly trained dogs for people including combat veterans, children with disabilities, and to schools.
NEADS spokesman John Moon said the organization started out nearly 40 years ago training dogs to help those with hearing impairments, and gradually added other programs. The nonprofit most recently began directing its efforts toward helping veterans suffering with physical disabilities and post traumatic stress syndrome.
Buckles is considered a social dog, best suited to assist children with autism and other learning disabilities who can often relate to a dog more easily than to other adults, Moon said.
“There’s also no judgment with a dog. The dog doesn’t care if you’re missing a hand or if your speech is not any good. They’re loyal to their partner,” Moon said.
Named after Frank Buckles, a World War I veteran, Buckles received his initial eight weeks of training from NEADS before going to a prison in Massachusetts where inmates spend 14 to 16 months training service dogs. That process in itself is a benefit to the inmates, he said.
“It’s huge because it teaches them responsibility, and that’s clearly not why they’re there. Typically, you see a marked difference in those individuals once they’re part of our prison partnership,” Moon said.
Though NEADS dogs are in high demand, Samsung Corp. has a partnership with the organization tied to its annual, $1 million school-based contest and awards program, Solve for Tomorrow.
Surrounded by a community where businesses, homes and farms were destroyed by flooding, students and staff took up Samsung’s challenge to demonstrate the use of technology in learning. They studied the science of flooding and employed technology, engineering and mathematics to produce videos for their submission.
Prizes were awarded through public online voting, and Schoharie garnered broad support from in and outside of New York state. And the district, with just 930 students and a single campus, beat a California school district with 32 schools and 18,000 students for the Community Choice Award.
Success as a finalist brought $70,000 in technology gear to the school, and the victory led to an award of another $100,000 in Samsung technology equipment.
Buckles was another prize, one less attached to products and marketing.
“It’s very human … This is genuine, you really can’t get more humane than this,” Moon said.
He said the use of assistance dogs appears to be a growing trend. “It is one we have been seeing for probably the past five to eight years, where dogs are great facilitators for learning, and we have placed many classroom dogs.”
Educators have found a variety of tasks for Buckles.
Student Emma Powell, 9, has been working on reading her Braille, and she earns time with Buckles by working hard. The chance to read to Buckles motivates her to want to read more Braille.
Schoharie Speech Therapist Michele Borst said Buckles will serve as a character in a story another one of her students is writing. That student is working on behavior issues, learning to make less noise and avoid touching other students, and Buckles serves as a good example. He doesn’t make much noise and keeps his paws to himself, Borst said.
With only a few weeks into the school year, students are already thinking about the parallels between how Buckles behaves and how they do, Nevulis said.
“Kids are making the association.”