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Therapy dog and students win money for animal shelter

April 2, 2020

What started out as an exercise in persuasive writing for students who wanted a therapy dog in their elementary school has evolved into a $100,000 award to the Muskegon Humane Society.

On Friday, Dec. 6, representatives from the Petco Foundation surprised students gathered at a special assembly at Reeths-Puffer Elementary School to present the grand prize in their annual Holiday Wishes program. The students won the award that will be given to the Humane Society and Animal Rescue of Muskegon County.

Staff and volunteers from the Humane Society were shocked Friday morning when they were presented with an oversized check representing the grand prize on Friday. They jumped up and down and cried while the assembled students screamed and cheered.

“I can’t breathe,” said Alexis Ogborn, the organization’s executive director, accepting the award. “Every animal deserves a chance.”

The Petco Foundation, in partnership with the footwear company Skechers, also gave away stuffed animals, socks and stickers to the students. The awards program gave away a total of $875,000 to animal welfare organizations across the country this year.

Buddy’s story was chosen from thousands of submissions to receive the grand prize.

“When you use your voice and advocate for yourself, amazing things can happen,” Paul Klimsza, the elementary school principal, told the gathered children.

Buddy, a Shih Tzu and Maltese mix, has been invaluable in calming down emotional or stressed out students. If a child is acting out, Buddy becomes involved until the student can better articulate him or herself to an adult. He can intuitively sense when a student is sad, said Assistant Principal Karyn Benner, who adopted and trained Buddy, and whose school office is his home away from home.

About half of students in the Reeths-Puffer school district come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, according to state data. Behavioral issues can accompany need, reflecting the trauma of financial hardship, and Buddy has been a key to addressing those issues, said Klimsza in an interview with MLive.

“When you have students that experience trauma like that, it comes to school and sometimes manifests itself in behaviors that aren’t always appropriate,” such as outbursts or running out of a classroom. “If Buddy’s around, they’ll typically stop what they’re doing, pet the dog, calm down, and then we’re able to process.”

“We have, between our staff, years of training on how to deescalate kids and how to work psychologically and socially with kids to get them to deescalate, and it’ll take us hours,” added Benner. “Buddy will go in and be able to do it in minutes.”

Since Buddy joined Reeths-Puffer Elementary last year, other therapy animals have been introduced at the Reeths-Puffer middle and high schools. Klimsza called Buddy a “godsend,” and said he would encourage other schools to look into therapy animals as well.

“I happen to be a dog lover but I don’t know if I believed in the impact [a dog could have],” he said in an interview with MLive. “But now that I’ve seen it in action I would not want it go away.”

Benner said she knew right away that Buddy would be a perfect fit for the school: he was a calm, happy, durable dog who intuited feelings and took to therapy dog training quickly. But his story started out less optimistically: he had been adopted, and then returned, to the Humane Society twice before.

Whatever caused that string of bad luck for Buddy spelled out a win for Reeths-Puffer, said Klimsza.

“He was a two-time loser and now he’s got the job of his life.”

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