LAKE STEVENS —The students love Bruce, and he’s not bashful about his affection for them.
On Thursday, the second day back to class at Lake Stevens Middle School, students clustered on the floor to watch a video while the golden retriever-Labrador mix sprawled out for belly rubs.
It was homeroom, when sixth and seventh graders gather for introductions, attendance and activities. They shared stories from their first day of school and talked about being optimistic, creative and open to new ideas versus worried, closed-off or defensive.
Homeroom started last year as a way to make sure students are greeted by name and acknowledged by teachers and peers each day, principal Lisa Sanchez said. It’s part of an effort to improve students’ mental and social health, a focal point for many schools. There’s also a new student mental health support specialist on campus: Hannah Herkert.
And there’s Bruce.
He’s an assistance dog, known as a facility dog because of his focus on group settings. He works closely with Herkert. She spent two weeks training with him in California over the summer. Bruce was bred and trained through Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit that provides free assistance dogs to people with disabilities or organizations that work with those who have special emotional or physical needs.
Herkert plans to involve Bruce in conversations with students, classes such as homeroom and Life Skills, and groups for young people who battle anxiety or are grieving.
“We can’t teach our kids if there’s something tough going on,” Herkert said. “We need to help them there, too.”
The district sent notices to families and gathered information on which students have allergies, trauma or other concerns related to dogs, Sanchez said. Overall, the response has been positive.
Children who don’t want to talk directly to an adult often are willing to confide in a dog, Sanchez said. Sometimes, Bruce can be part of a simple solution to a problem. One girl was nervous about going to class Thursday morning. Bruce walked her to the classroom door.
The consensus among students in homeroom with Herkert and Sanchez was that “everybody loves Bruce.” One boy suggested he should be the new school mascot.
There are about 630 students at Lake Stevens Middle School, in one of the fastest growing cities in the county.
Herkert was matched with Bruce after working with several dogs in California. She appreciates his ability to react to others’ emotions. His ears perk up and his tail wags when a student has something exciting to tell him, but he’ll remain calm when a student needs a mellow presence.
He knows 40 commands. Some are common for assistance dogs, such as turning on a light or fetching an item. Others are specific to emotional needs. He’s been taught “lap” and “visit,” where he’ll rest his head in someone’s lap or thigh. He can roll over and present his belly if kids are intimidated by his size, or duck under a nearby table to get out of their way.
There are three facility dog teams in Snohomish County through Canine Companions, said Michelle Williams, spokeswoman for the nonprofit. Along with Bruce at Lake Stevens Middle School, there are teams at Dawson Place Child Advocacy Center and the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
A facility dog is different than a therapy or an individual service dog, Williams said. Bruce is trained to work in a school setting. His role is with the kids.
“He can help with a number of things. A sense of calm, and I imagine a sense of consistency,” Williams said. “He’s going to give you that nice grounding presence. For a lot of students with behavioral issues or disabilities, that can be a huge help.”
During his first couple of days at school, Bruce shook hands, delivered packets and retrieved name tags. He also won himself many belly rubs.
Along with Herkert’s homeroom class, he spent time with students in the Life Skills program. Between classes, one Life Skills student spied Bruce and came into the classroom to pet him. Bruce responded with a sloppy kiss on the cheek.
The student left the room smiling.
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.