Kaz goes to school

"Oh my gosh, he's so cute! I just want to squeeze him!"

"Wow, he has curly hair just like me!"

"Can I pet him? Please, please, please can I pet him?"

These eager questions and more come from Pre-K students at Windsor Park Elementary on Feb. 7 when district therapy dog Kaz came to visit their classrooms. Kaz, a 65-pound ShepaDoodle, a German Shepherd and poodle mix. He visits schools two or three times a week with owner and trainer Deb Kaclik, who is also the director of social emotional learning and behavior support.

"Dogs are nonjudgmental and their love is unconditional," said Kaclik. "Students benefit from his visits in many ways. Kaz could be comforting, something to cuddle, pet or talk to.  Students may enjoy reading to them, socializing, walking with them or just sitting. There is extensive research on the benefits of pet therapy."

Kaz has been certified by Therapy Pets Unlimited. The organization works with dog trainers and handlers to certify dogs. The organization requires a temperament evaluation, a background check for the owner, an orientation and quiz and healthy certificate. In turn, Therapy Pets United provides liability insurances and structured protocols for the dog and owner.

The process takes about six months. Kaclik and Kaz took hours of intensive classes together. Kaz had to become comfortable with different people, places and things. He had to stay in a hotel, go to a restaurant, park, school, hospital office and stores. "A therapy pet doesn't need to be perfect as far as obedience is concerned," said Kaclik. "But they do need a solid, friendly temperament and an ability to shine in various situations."

It was Kaz's first visit to Windsor Park. The principal Dr. Lauren Finley requested the visit. She's worked with therapy dogs at previous schools and has seen the benefits, including a calming effect on students. "I have many high-needs students who could benefit from pet therapy," she said. "We can bring him back for specific students as a reward. I would also like to have an opportunity for students to read to Kaz."

Kaclik and Finley took him to each Pre-K classroom where he met the students and let them get comfortable with him. Students took turns petting him while Kaclik explained dog safety rules to them.

Teacher Robin Lindsey said Kaz's visits will add to her students' learning. "We've been learning about veterinarians and pets and having empathy and caring for others," she said. "Kaz will just help us reinforce all those lessons. And of course the smile and joy he brings are great too."

Kaz will visit Windsor Park students each month. They're already looking forward to it. As Kaclik and Kaz completed their rounds, students from Lindsey's classroom came running into the hallways. They'd already made thank you cards for Kaz, one depicting his birthday. "Can you come back tomorrow?" asked one student. 

See more photos of Kaz at Windsor Park here.