A four-legged assistant in Medomak Middle School’s front office makes the rounds of the school throughout the day, providing emotional support and friendship to students and staff.
Tilla, a border collie-poodle cross who just turned 3, is Medomak Middle School’s facility dog. She was brought to the Waldoboro school by Principal Katherine Race.
Tilla is in her second year at the school. She spends time with students and staff in the hallways and classrooms, and goes for walks outside with students. She provides support for students when they take tests, as well as social and emotional support to anyone who needs or wants it.
Race worked with Tilla to earn her certifications as a therapy dog, training in West Bath.
“She had to become a certified therapy dog and we did some run-throughs at nursing homes, where we were observed,” Race said. At the end of the training regimen, Tilla was ready to become Medomak Middle School’s facility dog.
While Tilla is a certified therapy dog, the school refers to her as a facility dog due to the requirements for a therapy dog to be on a leash, with a handler, at all times. As principal, Race cannot always be with her.
The designation also allows students and faculty members to spend time with Tilla outside the principal’s office.
Medomak Middle School is the first school in RSU 40 to have a facility dog, according to Race, who started at the middle school in 2013.
“They are brand new to the state,” Race said. “I think schools are fearful of having dogs because they can be noisy or disruptive, but there is no reason to be fearful. Any dog in a school has to go through a certification process.”
Race traveled to Providence, R.I. with Tilla and school counselor Laura Mewa in March to make a presentation on the impacts of a dog in a public school setting at a conference of the New England League of Middle Schools.
Tilla “attends a lot of athletic events, goes on field trips, and goes grocery shopping with our special education students,” Race said.
Outside the school, Tilla goes to area nursing homes and participates in mental health events at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.
Race said the RSU 40 Board of Directors approved a full-time facility dog as a way to de-escalate students in crisis mode. Tilla can work with Mewa when students are dealing with issues at school or home, in addition to nurturing students throughout the week. Sometimes the kids just need a hug from Tilla or a few minutes with a friend.
“They were very much in favor,” Race said of the board.
According to Race, the board’s policy committee rewrote the pertinent policy and the full board passed the revised policy.
Race understands the hesitancy around dogs regarding allergies and some students’ fear of dogs. She is always happy to speak with parents and avoid issues.
“Tilla never trumps the need of the students,” Race said.
At school, Tilla wears many hats. She helps students overcome anxiety and stress and is a friend to anyone who needs one, according to Race.
Tilla has a bed in Race’s office, but students can sign her out for “Tilla time” when they want to accompany her elsewhere in the school.
“She always has a person with her, whether she is walking around the school or out with the students at recess,” Race said.
Addy Ruggieri, a seventh grader at Medomak Middle School, has become close with Tilla, and Tilla will jump into Ruggieri’s lap without hesitation.
“She can really tell when you are upset. It is really easy to feel good when she is around,” Ruggieri said.
Ruggieri likes to bring Tilla to class. She first met Tilla at the start of this school year.
Cooper Ruffner, another seventh grader, has dogs at home and enjoys having one at school. He first met Tilla when he was on a field trip to the middle school from Warren Community School.
“I think it is great to have a dog here,” Ruffner said.
Cora Lee, also a seventh grader, said Tilla is helpful during testing.
“She really helps to calm kids down and sometimes during NWEA tests she comes to the room and she helps you calm down,” Lee said. (The Northwest Evaluation Association test evaluates’ students’ academic progress.)
Race said classes can also sign out Tilla.
Tilla greets visitors to the front office, including substitutes and parents dropping off lunches throughout the morning.
Tilla is the second facility dog Race has worked with at Medomak Middle School. Before Tilla, she brought in her Labradoodle, Finnegan, once a week for “Finny Fridays.”
Race, who is working on her doctoral dissertation evaluating the impact of dogs in public school settings, said Tilla was a way to bring something positive to the school without a big investment of money or resources.
“With the increase in social and emotional issues facing students, I knew I wanted to provide some sort of intervention that wasn’t costly, but would be a part of the culture here for everybody,” Race said.
Race said Tilla is a big part of a positive climate at Medomak Middle School – a four-legged friend who gets students to come to school and helps them enjoy their time there and make it through tough days.