Susan Urban, reading specialist at Cooper Elementary School, is new to Derby schools this year. Fortunately, she’s got an expert companion who might be able to offer her some comfort amid first-year jitters.
Urban is the owner and handler for Ivan, a black Russian terrier and the latest dog to be registered as a therapy dog in Derby Public Schools.
“I tell my students that Ivan’s job is to make people smile and to feel better,” she told the Informer. “Having a therapy dog allows students time to just be themselves – to not feel like they are being judged.”
“Ivan is going to love them and listen to them without telling them what to do, how to do it, or that they aren’t good enough.”
Ivan joins five other registered therapy dogs in the Derby school district: three at Derby High School, one at Oaklawn Elementary School and another who visits multiple buildings.
Kansas statute defines a therapy dog as one that is selected, trained and tested to provide specific physical or therapeutic functions under the direction and control of a qualified handler who works with the dog as a team, and as a part of the handler’s profession or occupation.
The district does not seek out therapy dogs to add to its ranks, per se. Instead, employees who are interested in registering their dogs can approach the district and fill out an application before they can support a school.
Applicants are required not only to share the breed, size and years of service for their dog, but also must provide proof of vaccinations, liability insurance, and proof of therapy dog training and certification. Records must be updated annually.
Owners are also required to clean and provide general care for their dogs, including a requirement that all therapy dogs must have an appropriately sized crate, a water bowl, and a leash that is four feet or shorter.
Urban described Ivan’s breed as a “working breed” of high intelligence. While working as a reading specialist at a previous school district, Urban became Ivan’s owner when he was just 8 weeks old.
“They do best when they are socialized and have a job to do,” she said. “I immediately thought how wonderful it would be if he could become a therapy dog, so he could be a reading dog for the students that I work with.”
Urban immediately started socializing Ivan with people and other animals as a puppy. From there, the two took several classes together before Ivan ultimately tested to become a therapy dog.
As a therapy dog, Ivan had to learn to listen and follow basic commands, as well as learn to do some of the commands by watching hand movements, as Urban sometimes has to order him to do something without verbalizing it.
Urban and Ivan work as a pair, and it’s important for them to be familiar with one another.
“When we took the tests for certification, I was also evaluated on how I handled him,” Urban said. “I have to be able to ‘read’ Ivan and know how he is handling different situations, if he is feeling stressed or not – if he needs a break.”
Ivan is currently only going to school two days a week to make sure he has ample time to rest and unwind after a day of work. Some of his duties include standing by for head pats as kids walk down the hallway, being a reading buddy for students, providing comfort to kids who are experiencing hardship, and rewarding students who work hard with a visit.
Urban said Ivan has become a favorite at Cooper, with students and staff asking about him on his days off.
“Ivan is just as excited as everyone at school on Ivan days. He’s the first one out the door when I tell him it’s time to go to school,” she said.