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He’s the teacher’s pet – really – and students’ furry friend

Therapy dog helps calm students, define classroom culture

Photography by Dianne Carroll Burdick

Godfrey-Lee — At Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center, K-2 resource teacher Kelsey Koetje’s classroom is colorful and engaging, with phonics flashcards and spelling words on the walls.

A four-legged addition to Koetje’s room spends his workday curled up next to his mom’s desk.

Dave the therapy dog is an official staff member at the ECC and a best friend to his students. 

At 12:30 p.m. one recent day, three students walk in the door with Koetje and student teacher Maddie Roberts, make a beeline for Dave and shower him with hellos, hugs and kisses.

When Koetje calls her students back to the semicircle table to start their work for the day, second-grader Rosa laments, “Dave doesn’t want me to go.”

Second-graders Rosa, left, and Brazil greet Dave the therapy dog with hugs at the beginning of resource teacher Kelsey Koetje’s class

Fellow second-grader Brazil quickly reminds her, “We have to listen or we won’t get our special reward with Dave!”

Koetje keeps two jars on her desk, and when her students are respectful to their peers, she moves a few dried “blurt beans” from one jar to the other. When the second jar fills up to the line, students earn time outside with Dave at recess. 

“It incentivizes good behavior in the classroom,” Koetje said. 

Dave helps define the culture of the classroom. He has a routine and rules to follow, which Koetje hopes encourages calm behaviors and rule-following from her students.

“When Dave says ‘woof woof,’ the kids know it’s time to get back to their seats and finish their work,” she said. 

A Part of the Family

Koetje has taught in the resource room at the ECC for nine years. She brought her black goldendoodle into her classroom when he was 1 year old. 

After working together for four years, Koetje and Dave formed a great co-teaching relationship; she teaches all the lessons and he gets all the treats. 

‘When Dave says ‘woof woof,’ the kids know it’s time to get back to their seats and finish their work.’

– teacher Kelsey Koetje

Having Dave in the classroom is “sharing a piece of me and my family with my students,” Koetje explained. 

“As soon as I got him, I knew I wanted him to be a therapy dog,” she said. 

Dave earned his certification through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, where he trained alongside Koetje at a nursing home.

“I had to take a test before the observation and they mainly look at a dog’s temperament,” she said. “He’s not aggressive around people at all and is a really good boy.” 

When Dave is home with his family, Kelsey is more concerned about her 1-year old daughter pulling his ears and grabbing his fur than her dog showing aggression. 

At the end of their time working with resource teacher Kelsey Koetje, her students take turns giving treats to Dave

A Huggable Teacher’s Aide 

After Kelsey ran the idea by her principal and superintendent, Dave settled into his role of helping students complete their work and being someone to practice reading aloud with. On a recent afternoon, he helps students with both counting and comfort. 

“Teen numbers are so much fun; teen numbers start with one,” Koetje instructs. 

Dave waits patiently to observe the students’ work while using his mom’s messenger bag as a pillow.

After students complete their counting charts, they walk over to Dave, proudly sharing their work. He lifts his head and offers a “high-paw” of approval. 

With a few minutes left of their time with Koetje, Rosa, Brazil and classmate Ivan get two Goldfish crackers to give to Dave for sitting and lying down.

“Good job, Dave,” Rosa says as she gives Dave a hug goodbye.

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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