Crothersville’s school dog making a difference for students

CROTHERSVILLE — Bella is new to Crothersville Community Schools.

In the classroom, she loves interacting with students. Between classes, she likes to roam the hallways and check out what’s going on.

She’s not a fan of fire alarms and copy machines or being in the loud gymnasium, but everywhere else is fine.

No matter where she’s at, her presence alone makes others feel good, safe and comfortable. She’s a four-legged friend to all.

Whoa, wait a minute. Four-legged friend?

Oh, yeah. Bella is a 9-year-old Newfoundland owned by junior-senior high school teacher Tammy Hensley that is serving as the school dog.

Principal Doug Ballinger said the school resource officer had mentioned to him a few times about getting a dog at school to be a calming presence and help students going through serious issues. Knowing Hensley had a certified therapy dog, Ballinger asked her about bringing Bella to school.

That started last fall a couple of days a week and later moved up to four days a week. Just recently, Superintendent Chrystal Street and the Crothersville Community School Corp. board of education made it official for Bella to continue as the school dog for the remainder of the school year.

“I think her purpose here is just support, making sure that the kids feel safe and accepted, and she’s always that one person you can go to. She doesn’t say anything. She’s just there for you,” Hensley said.

Ballinger said there were a few students who regularly caused problems at school, but since Bella has been around, he has noticed that not happening as often.

“It has opened up different opportunities to talk and probably personalize education a little bit. It has a very calming effect,” he said. “(Dogs) really do attach to kids and make a difference.”

With Hensley being in her first year as a teacher at the school, Ballinger said the dog has even helped students adapt to her.

“Once she brought the dog in, everything changed,” he said. “Everybody wanted to come in here (to her classroom), they wanted to talk to her, they wanted to get to know her more. Then they saw the softer side of her and the caring side of her, which they may not have seen before. It really opened up the opportunity to develop relationships not only with her but the dog, as well.”

More than 20 years ago, Hensley started with Newfoundlands, which she describes as loving and attentive with a gentle disposition. She quickly learned people need them.

“I just learned to share them,” she said. “I think it’s common with that breed in particular. It’s a special dog. Sometimes, there are just dogs that are meant to share their lives. You know the ones that just seem to touch people. … My Newfoundlands were all good with people, but there are those special ones. You could just see they worked the room and did it themselves.”

Along with being a therapy dog, Bella is a retired show dog with working, draft and water rescue dog titles, and she also is a companion dog and has enjoyed visiting people in nursing homes and other places.

“She has just been a great person dog, and she seems to always know who needs it,” Hensley said. “Anywhere you go, she’s the first one to go, and she’s very calm, she’s very relaxed and appropriate, but she’s highly trained. It’s nine years of training.”

A few years ago, Hensley, who was retired after 35 years in the communications industry, covered her niece Tiffany Orrill’s elementary classroom during a maternity leave, and she received approval to bring Bella into the classroom.

“She was a hit,” Hensley said.

Now, Hensley is in her first year of teaching business math, technology and culinary arts at the junior-senior high school, and she has been bringing Bella along on a regular basis. The only day Bella isn’t in the classroom is Fridays when students are cooking in culinary arts.

“Dog hair and cooking do not go together,” Hensley said, smiling. “That’s just my rule. We just don’t allow that. I’ve had other teachers volunteer to keep Bella in their room, but we haven’t settled on that yet. It’s one of those things that she’s welcome almost anywhere.”

While at school, Hensley said Bella’s mainstay is just to be loving.

“Therapy dogs are not intended to do a service or tricks or anything like that, but just to be attentive,” she said. “I do train her, she knows some tricks, so high fives are ones the kids like a lot or rollover, I can direct her to roll over, so they enjoy those type of things. But really, it’s just paying attention.”

Some mornings, Bella lies near Hensley’s desk and just watches the classroom. Other days, Bella looks around, gets up, goes to a child she chooses and just sits by them or pays attention to them.

“Dogs know more than we do, and you just have to let them do their work,” Hensley said.

Elementary special education students who are having a bad day are brought to Hensley’s classroom just to spend a brief time with Bella, and Hensley said it takes a few minutes of petting her to calm them down.

Hensley has first and seventh periods free, so she likes to take Bella around to other classrooms. The preschool class especially likes when Bella visits.

“Elementary, Bella loves that hallway,” Hensley said. “She enjoys all parts of the school. We try to share her with everybody.”

Hensley has noticed a big improvement in the school hallways during passing periods.

“We used to have kids that would congregate, and of course, once you get a group of kids together, things change, dynamics change. We would see scuffles start, and of course, teachers would calm it down and move on,” she said. “Now, they just talk to Bella or pet Bella, and it’s amazing.”

One day, she said Ballinger came by to see how much attention Bella received in the hallway, and he estimated 40% of the kids touched her.

“It was just a matter of a touch or stopping and seeing her, so for them, it was just a moment of calm,” Hensley said. “I think that is the key to it is just you need a moment. I’ve had bad days, and you just need that moment of refresh, and it takes just a few seconds, so I’m glad I have Bella that can assist students through that.”

Seventh-graders Khloe Hickman, Rebecca Masnick, Matthew Fitch and Allyson Coomer all said they like having Bella around.

“She has helped me in the way of some things that have been going on at home and I’ve been depressed. She helps lighten up that mood. She’s a dog. She’s adorable,” Hickman said.

Fitch agreed with Bella lightening the mood.

“Everybody is quiet and she walks around to you, and then you pet her and it calms your mood,” he said.

Masnick said she has anxiety, and petting Bella helps ease that.

“Normally, I just pet her when I want to calm down,” she said. “My mood changes. It’s nice. It’s the best.”

Coomer said since she can’t bring her dog to school, it’s nice to have Bella around.

“She’s like my dog but fuzzier,” she said. “People are actually happier. Bella makes people happy.”

Looking back on the time and work put in to show Bella and get her trained to help others, it gives Hensley pride to see the impact she makes.

“I see dogs differently. It used to be just something you had at the house,” she said. “Now, it’s something that you can build upon and build a legacy. I feel that our dogs are our legacy, and they’ve all contributed to my life and others’ lives ever since I started in Newfoundlands. It’s a joy to see 24 years of dogs come to where it’s a purposeful, everyday thing. And of course, I get to bring my dog to work. Who can beat that?”

Bella being an excellent dog with the students goes back to her careful breeding and training, Hensley said.

“I have purebred dogs for a purpose,” she said. “They have a purpose. I know what they are supposed to do. Newfoundlands were bred to work side by side with humans, and they are supposed to have a gentle disposition. I make sure that happens when I breed them, and I bring that forward in every line.”

Now being a teacher and bringing Bella along with her, Hensley said it’s a joy.

“My goal when I graduated high school was to become a teacher, so it took me 30-some years to get here, and I made it,” she said, smiling. “I’m actually getting a degree in education. I chose to do that. I have a specialized license because of my experience and stuff, but I’m going to actually put the cherry on top, so I’ll have my dog and my degree. It’s all good.”