Sacandaga Elementary School had a special guest of honor for its assembly on Wednesday — a therapy dog named Sadie.
The golden retriever’s handler, fifth-grade teacher Jeannine Dowdle, urged the students to be quiet because this was Sadie’s first time in front of such a large group.
“There’s a lot of kids here,” she said. “Her ears are so sensitive.”
Dowdle told the students to reach out their hand and let Sadie come to them as she led the dog up and down the rows of children sitting on the floor. The dog sniffed the floor and looked inquisitively at the students and surroundings.
To get ready for her big debut, Sadie has been working with a group of 33 fifth-graders called “Sadie’s Support Team” for a little more than a month and Wednesday was her formal introduction to the rest of the school.
The support team served as the opening act for Sadie, showing a video and explaining about therapy dogs. These dogs visit nursing homes, hospitals, schools and other institutions to provide comfort to people. To be certified as therapy dogs, the dogs must be of good temperament and comfortable around people. They must pass tests and be reviewed by certified evaluators.
Dowdle has had Sadie, now 18 months old, since she was 8 weeks old. She hopes that the dog can meet with one or two students at a time. As Sadie’s handler, she has to be there when that happens.
Dowdle also got Sadie to shake her hand by holding out a treat.
“It was awesome!” said 8-year-old Kailei Santelli.
The students warmed up to Sadie, even if not many students got to pet her.
“I thought the therapy dog was really adorable and helpful,” said 8-year-old third-grader Sophia Liggett.
Christina Quinones, 10, was one of the lucky ones who got close to Sadie. “I got to pet her on the back and the head,” she said.
Dowdle said she got the idea to bring Sadie to school from principal Ann Comley.
“I wanted two rats in my room. She said ‘absolutely not. You can have your therapy dog.’ ”
“I’m very proud of her because she was a very shy puppy. I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to get her certificate.”
She has students read to the dog, which has proven beneficial in research studies. “It actually allows them to be less nervous and their fluency increases, their comprehension increases and it starts to increase test scores,” she said.
Having the dog around is also calming for the students, according to Dowdle. “It’s supposed to bring emotional comfort and support.”
Support team member Shelby McNamara, 10, agreed, saying that sometimes she’ll have trouble remembering something for class and then when Sadie comes near her, the thought will jump back into her head. “She’ll make me feel happy. I just love her and she’s so nice and sweet.”
Another member of Sadie’s Support Team, 10-year-old Erin Turner, said it took a while for Sadie to warm up to the class at first. “She was a little scared,” she said. “She stayed in one place while everybody petted her and got to meet her.”
She enjoys the experience. “It’s a lot of fun and I love Sadie a lot. She’s sweet and she’s very kind.”
Dowdle is also training another dog, Micah, for therapy use. He is in the process of completing his intermediate obedience classes. “The test is like a two-hour test and it’s really involved. Dogs have to be very well trained,” she said.
Dowdle said Sadie hasn’t helped a lot of people yet. She said she would like to bring the dog into hospital and cancer wards. She is from Burnt Hills and recalled how Jacob Shell, son of the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake football coach, fell ill with cancer last year. Jacob said how important it was when dogs visited him.
“Their purpose is to bring joy,” Dowdle said.