By CARL SMITH
Sudduth Elementary School Principal Lisa Thompson said she guarantees the school’s newest employee will be a favorite of all students and play just as much as they do.
The school’s newest employee has curly hair, enough energy to hang with the most active elementary student, a wet nose and four paws.
BJ, Thompson’s pet and newest Starkville School District employee, was unanimously approved for pet therapy activities at Sudduth by the school board Tuesday.
Always looking for a way to help with her students, Thompson helped bring about art therapy in the school last year. She said the idea to use a puppy to help children with emotional issues came to her while watching television one day.
“My family and I watch ‘Dogs 101’ all of the time,” she said. “When the Bichon Frise (BJ’s breed) came on the TV, we saw all of the incredible characteristics of the breed and I knew we could use one.”
The Bichon Frise was chosen because of the breed’s mild-mannered and loving nature, Thompson said. The breed also sheds much less than other dogs and are hypoallergenic, alleviating concerns with allergies.
Thompson’s search for a Bichon Frise put her in contact with breeders as far north as Kentucky, but she finally found BJ in Meridian when he was only a 6-week-old puppy. BJ, now 10 weeks old, was purchased for only $250.
While Thompson and school counselors are still setting the criteria for BJ’s specific uses in the school, Sudduth Counselor Dawn Swartz said the puppy will be available for each student to pet and play with.
“I know we’ll use him in a general way with every student. For example, allowing students to walk him will help them learn responsibility,” she said.
While all students will be able to experience BJ’s playfulness, Thompson said the best way he’ll be used is with children who have experienced traumas such as death, divorce and abuse.
“Once these children see BJ, it’s like nothing else matters. They just melt,” she said. “All he has to do is sit in their laps and love them.”
Although BJ has not had full exposure to the student body because of summer, Thompson said his presence has already made a difference.
“I have a first grade student who has been at my school for two years. When he walked in every day with his father, I would say hello, but he would shy away and wouldn’t talk to me,” she said. “When I brought BJ up to his class a few weeks ago, he came up to the door and held a conversation with me about his pet. Never before had he approached me and talked to me like that.”
Sudduth Elementary staff and teachers will monitor the overall progress of students involved in the pet therapy program. While tangible results will be hard to measure, Thompson said she hopes the love and encouragement BJ will provide students will in turn help raise their confidence and abilities in the classroom.
While BJ is clearly top — and the only — dog at Sudduth Elementary, Thompson said another Bichon Frise could be purchased in the future to assist in developing pet therapy at the school.