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Jackson Street School therapy dog settles in 

  • Jackson, an 8-month-old labradoodle therapy dog, only seems to be the center of attention at Jackson Street School in Northampton as he watches tiered support specialist Rebeca Allessi lead first-graders in a mindfulness/yoga session on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jackson Street School fifth-grader Kyle Warawka delights in having his toes tickled by the school’s 8-month-old labradoodle therapy dog, Jackson, on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018, in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jackson, an 8-month-old labradoodle therapy dog, lies on one of his four beds at Jackson Street School in Northampton while first-graders practice mindfulness and yoga on Tuesday. Behind him are, from left, first-graders Marcelo Flajnik-Palladino, Kayleigh Maldonado Gonzalez, Kianna Ripley and Hope McCoy. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jackson Street School therapy dog, Jackson, has four handlers at the school that keep him on track in his busy schedule - including a nap time, which the eight-month-old labradoodle takes during the students' recess.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Beth Bellavance Grace, an educational support professional at Jackson Street School in Northampton, takes Jackson, the school's eight-month-old labradoodle therapy dog, to his next appointment at the school on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. At right is administrative assistant Dierdre Johnson. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jackson Street School first-graders Phoebe Chapman, left, and Leyla Ibrahim pet Jackson, the school's therapy dog, after a mindfulness/yoga class on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, in Northampton. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jackson Street School educational support professional Beth Bellavance Grace handles the school's new therapy dog, Jackson, during a visit with second-grader Erick Loja Mayancela on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, in Northampton. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jackson, the Jackson Street School therapy dog, watches first-graders taking part in a mindfulness/yoga session on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, in Northampton. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jackson Street School teacher Zachary Strouse, right, and his first grade students take part in a mindfulness/yoga session with Jackson, center, the school's eight-month-old labradoodle therapy dog, on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, in Northampton. Facing camera, from left, are Hope McCoy, Phoebe Chapman, Leyla Ibrahim, Enzo Bird Blyth and Chiara Ohm. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jackson Street School second grade teacher Jolie Smith, left, nuzzles the school's new therapy dog, Jackson, following a mindfulness/yoga session with her students on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, in Northampton. One of Jackson's four designated handlers at the school, educational support professional Beth Bellavance Grace, is at right. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jackson, the new therapy dog at Jackson Street School in Northampton, visits the school courtyard to burn off some puppy energy between visits to classrooms on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jackson, the new therapy dog at Jackson Street School in Northampton, is an eight-month-old labradoodle. Photo taken on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 9/27/2018 4:59:37 PM

NORTHAMPTON — It’s less than a month into the new year at Jackson Street School and its newest addition, Jackson, a therapy dog, has already become a familiar and friendly sight, bringing comfort, smiles and a calming presence to the school community.

Mostly calm, that is. At the age of eight months, this trained labradoodle is still all puppy and “a work in progress,” as Principal Gwen Agna puts it. But the intended effects of having a full-time resident therapy dog are already apparent.

“We’re still feeling out what role he can play for large groups and individuals,” Agna said. “But he’s providing comfort and a sense of fun and also he makes people just smile - and that raises their feelings of happiness.”

Jackson lives with Agna and her husband, Tom Marantz, who is retired and so is able to bring him to school each day at the morning bell. “He’s the ‘deliver-er’ and ‘picker-upper’,” notes Agna, who is one of Jackson’s four designated handlers at the school, along with tiered support specialist Rebeca Allessi, adjustment counselor Justin Gianesin and Beth Bellavance-Grace, an education support professional.

Jackson arrived in July from Ultimate Canine, a dog training company in Indiana, with a trainer who taught the four handlers how to work with the then six-month-old dog. According to Bellavance-Grace, when school started, the handlers introduced Jackson to the students and discussed “who he is, where he goes and why he’s here” and laid down some ground rules. One of these is to not call him out by name or pet him without asking permission first. So now when he passes a line of students in the halls, Jackson tends to create a small ripple of hands waving to him in the short sign language the kids have learned to greet him with, one pinky finger sweeping down in a fluid “j” motion, leaving a lot of smiles in his wake.

On most days Jackson’s color-coded schedule – one color for each of the four handlers – is booked fairly solid, as he attends one-on-one sessions with students, visits classrooms and also “holds court” in the school’s mindfulness/yoga class lead by Rebeca Allessi. On this    Tuesday, Beth Bellavance-Grace, or “Ms. B-G” as she’s known at school, brings Jackson to Allessi’s class early to lie down in the middle of a circle of mats on one of his four beds at the school. Flattened out like this, with his eyes hidden, he might be mistaken for a ragged butterscotch stuffie rather than an actual 45-pound dog, but when an orderly class of first-graders enters the room, he perks up. When the students respond in kind, Allessi is quick to remind them not to call out to “our friend” by name, so many of them flash the “j” sign his way.

During the class, Jackson provides a centering point for the kids while they listen to Allessi and progress through their poses. At the close of the session the children approach eagerly, two at a time, to rub his belly or share a quick “snuggle” and, invariably, leave with a smile. Bellavance-Grace, who often pulls duty with Jackson in the morning, says she likes the connections she makes with the kids while they’re connecting with Jackson, adding, “it’s nice to see the kids’ best sides when they’re meeting the dog.”

Last summer, Jackson’s trainer cautioned Agna that she may see him exhibiting “teenagehood” at some point. “We’re seeing a little bit of rebellion for sure,” she says with a laugh. “But we see that for even the little ones,” observes Agna, who is in her 23rd year as principal at Jackson Street.

Justin Gianesin, the school’s adjustment counselor and a self-proclaimed “dog person,” was never trained specifically to work with a therapy dog. But he says having kids interact with Jackson has opened up lines of communication. Sitting in therapy is not necessarily what young kids want to do, but having a therapy dog “has enabled us to have more conversations, more openly.”

“It’s been life changing for me as a practitioner here,” he said.

Fourth-grader Gabe Brick, who sees Jackson “pretty much every day”, said he loves big dogs like Jackson.

“So, I know that I love him,” he said. “I obviously can’t understand what he’s thinking of me, but I know that we’re a good combination.”

It seems the whole student body might be with Gabe in this regard, as he recounts the interactions he’s witnessed in this first month. “Even cat people are like, ‘Hi Jackson!’ Everybody loves Jackson and Jackson loves everybody.” 

Kevin Gutting can be reached at kgutting@gazettenet.com.


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