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'Focus' on learning


Therapy dog helps improve skills at Capac Elementary


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Fourth graders in Joy Smith’s classroom have benefitted from weekly visits from Focus, the therapy dog. photo by Maria Brown.

February 03, 2010
CAPAC — She's furry, four-legged and focused on making the school day brighter for Capac Elementary School students. She's Focus, a four year-old golden retriever trained therapy dog, who's been making regular visits to the school since October and has quickly grown to be one of the most popular 'staff members,' Principal Kathy Kish jokes.

Whether it's listening to a first grader hone their reading skills or cozying up to a fourth grader who needs a smile, Focus does a little bit of everything in her job. For the most part, she's just herself—a sweet, friendly dog.

"She's just a natural with children...she was born to do this job," says owner and Capac second grade teacher Margo Allen, while her students clamor to pet the golden retriever.

Everyone agrees. Teachers say Focus makes learning fun, gives the kids incentive to work hard and, in a nod to her name, helps them focus. On her way to the classroom, fellow teachers and staff stop in the hallway to give her a pat on the head and kids call out hellos from their desks.

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"She's the rock star, I just ride on her coat tails," Allen adds with a laugh.

Focus is first and foremost the Allen's family dog. She spent the first three years of her life in 4-H obedience and agility programs with Margo's son, Hayden. Sensing she was a special dog, the Allens had Focus tested and she became a registered therapy dog. When special education teacher Joy Smith approached Kish about possibly using a therapy dog in her classroom, Margo's dog came to mind.

Smith said her students have benefitted greatly from having Focus in the classroom every Friday. Since she's an attentive listener, Smith said the students are willing to do more reading. Focus also helps the kids relax, Smith said, and can even help dispel tears.

"That's why they call them man's best friend," Jacob, a fourth grader said, while petting Focus.

Other third and fourth graders in Smith's room say they like it that Focus is a "lovable friend," checks their papers with a smell or lick, encourages them to work and nudges them when she needs them to pet her.

First grade teacher Colleen Burke calls Focus an "angel in the classroom."

She reads with the students and when it comes time to test the kids' comprehension, Burke hands out Cheerios to her students. If they answer correctly, Focus gets a treat.

Kish said that Focus has also worked with the school's Great Parents, Great Start program which includes children as young as infants.

Allen said it's been great to watch Focus settle into her new vocation.

"The kids look for her, accept her and she accepts them unconditionally," she said.

To learn more about Therapy Dogs Incorporated, go to www.therapydogs.com.

Maria Brown joined the Tri-City Times staff in 2003, the same year she earned a bachelor's degree in English from Calvin College. Born and raised in Imlay City, she now resides north of Capac where she enjoys working on the farm, gardening and reading.
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