Image Source: https://www.akc.org/
Tucked inside a plush beanbag-filled playhouse in South Salem Elementary School’s media center is everyone’s favorite staff member: Mr. Booker T. Pug.
It’s where he makes a difference in the lives of 900 students every day.
The students who read aloud to nonjudgemental Booker and become better readers. The students who come into the media center terrified of dogs, but discover Booker is okay in their book. The students who are rambunctious in their classrooms but relaxed with Booker.
The new student who came to the media center crying after putting his dog to sleep the night before. He sat with Booker that day, and several more times that week.
The special needs pre-K autistic student who didn’t smile or talk. When the boy visited Booker with his class for the first time, he laughed and said three words: “black,” “dog,” and “book.”
“He has the ability to see that somebody is not having a good day or somebody needs some attention,” said media specialist and owner-handler Meghen Bassel.
A typical day for the four-year-old licensed therapy dog is nonstop storytime, snores, and snuggles. But Booker wasn’t always the beloved and bookish therapy dog he is now.
Checking Out a New Career
After spending more than a decade as a software engineer, Meghen felt it was time for a change. She wanted something rewarding where she could work with children and dogs.
She decided to become a media specialist and knew she would find a way to incorporate dogs into her school’s media center.
“I did a ton of research and discovered that therapy dogs could come and visit media centers,” said Meghen. “The biggest issue was that they only come maybe once a week or once a month.”
That was when Meghen decided she would have the first full-time therapy dog in a media center.
At Meghen’s elementary school in Covington, Georgia, 71 percent of the students have free and reduced lunch, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Two-thirds of Georgia’s third-graders aren’t reading at their grade level, according to Get Georgia Reading.
Meghen pitched the idea to the school superintendent and board of education. After educating them about therapy dogs and their role in a school setting, Meghen gained approval from district officials.
Booking It to Become the Best Therapy Dog
Meghen had to find the perfect dog for this pilot program.
She researched a list of the qualities she’d need in her therapy dog: healthy, well-bred with a non-threatening face and temperament, and a small and sturdy size. That led her to the most loyal and curious canine companion: the Pug.
“I chose the Pug because for thousands of years, they’ve been bred to have this wonderful, happy, confident temperament. And for thousands of years, they’ve been shown to be great with kids,” she said.
She began contacting reputable Pug breeders. After an extensive eight-month search, Meghen found a breeder in Ohio willing to donate a one-year-old black Pug to the cause.
Since his breeder had started showing him in conformation, Meghen promised she’d try for his championship title.
Meghen began by accomplishing her first goal: passing the 10-step Canine Good Citizen program.
“If he can do this, then this tells me he’s very trainable and he’s confident,” said Meghen. “He will have what he needs to move on to more difficult tasks.”
Booker proved that he had what it took to pass not only the CGC, but the four-hour test that made him certified by Therapy Dogs International (TDI).
Soon, Booker earned the show championship title Meghen aimed to accomplish for the breeder. She also wanted to fulfill a promise she made to herself: to expose her kids to the limitless possibilities they can aspire to.
“They need to see that just because they come from a different world than other people do that they still can accomplish the same things,” she said.