Hearts of Gold: St. Rita Catholic School trains therapy dog in hopes of supporting students, staff

North Texas Catholic
(Sep 7, 2023) Local

Golden Retriever Scout poses in front of bookshelves where she will eventually spend time being read to by students. The 4-month-old puppy is being trained as a service dog who will serve the school community. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

FORT WORTH — Students and staff at St. Rita Catholic School in Fort Worth are learning many lessons of faith, love, and patience with the arrival of a furry new addition to their ranks.

After attending an American School Counselor Association conference two years ago and feeling impacted by a presentation on the benefits service animals bring to education, school counselor Kindra Johnston discussed the possibility of bringing one in to St. Rita with the school principal, Mary Burns.

“St. Rita’s wasn’t ready or anything then,” the counselor of four years said. “[Mrs. Burns and I] were just playing with the idea.”

Kindra Johnston, counselor at St. Rita Catholic School, is seen with her Golden Retriever, Scout, on Aug. 30, 2023, during one of their daily training walks around the hallways. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Earlier this year, however, as Mrs. Johnston came to terms with the passing of her lab-mix in January and her beloved mother’s passing in May, she came upon a beautiful litter of golden retrievers through a good friend’s recommendation and decided to revisit the idea with the principal.

“I mentioned it to Mrs. Burns over the summer, saying, ‘I think I’ve got our service dog,’” Mrs. Johnston said. “And now, she’s here.”


A pawsitive response

Well known for its sweet disposition, intelligence, and incredible patience with children, a Golden Retriever puppy seemed to Mrs. Johnston the perfect candidate to introduce to her school.

And Scout, St. Rita’s first-ever service-dog-in-training, has started off the school year proving her right.

“The kids are adoring her,” said Mrs. Johnston, who fully funds and cares for Scout’s needs as her owner. “They’ve done little pictures of her, and she does really well around them.”

While most of the students and faculty would love to fawn over the four-month-old Golden Retriever puppy, Scout is only allowed to interact with kids “a little bit” for now, Mrs. Johnston said.

“Scout is officially going through training to be classified as a psychiatric service dog. She’s in her second phase right now,” the counselor and caretaker explained. The puppy’s trainer and breeder, Victoria Mueller, “trains service animals for vets to use to support victims of PTSD and patients with heart conditions.”

As part of Ms. Mueller’s training regimen for Mrs. Johnston and Scout, the two must undergo a “big process of training. Once we get through the four different phases, we will have a test that both Scout and I will have to pass. Then Scout will be evaluated by her veterinarian, and if they okay it, she’ll legally become a service dog,” Mrs. Johnston explained.

Kindra Johnston checks in with first-grade students with Scout in attendance on Aug. 30, 2023. Students ask questions about the puppy's training and open up about their own pets.(NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Presently, Mrs. Johnston brings Scout to work every day and, together, they practice making “rounds” through the school hallways so the puppy can practice achieving a working-dog calm even when enveloped in a crowd of adoring faces. With her training completion projected for the end of January, Scout’s interactions with kids are minimal but also quite powerful.

“Students are practicing self-control because they can’t be yelling at her [in excitement],” Mrs. Johnston said with a smile. “Scout’s in the training process herself, but it's good training for the kids, too, to learn that self-restraint.”

Authentic conversations and lessons about respect have surfaced between the counselor and students, as well.

“They’ll ask me, ‘What happens if I pet her?’ And then we talk about respect,” Mrs. Johnston mentioned.

She’s noticed that by learning to control their impulse to touch, pet, or crowd around Scout, students are also genuinely learning to wait for her explicit say-so because doing so is “respecting me, and it’s respecting Scout. We need to see that she’s going through training, so she can help you later.”


Training to heal

Both Mrs. Burns and Mrs. Johnston have high hopes for Scout’s academic, emotional, and spiritual impact on students.

“I think the biggest opportunity for our kids, as we're forming them in their faith and character and academics, is that they see the connection of God's creation to every aspect of our lives,” Principal Burns said. “Seeing Scout as she grows and how she can nurture them and they can nurture her, and how we're all supposed to be caring for God's creation — I think that is just one very beautiful part of having a therapy dog on campus that will make an impact on them today and in the future.”

Mrs. Burns discussed plans of Scout’s presence being instrumental in providing students with a “calming source when kids are really feeling big emotions” and allowing them the “opportunity to self-soothe with a partner who can help them develop skills to cope with challenges.”

The school plans to use Scout as a "reading buddy" for young readers. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

The principal of seven years is also excited about the prospect of Scout’s developing ability to achieve a praying pose, so “she can participate in our daily prayers when we pray as an entire school in the morning.” Scout, she believes, will be a good model for students and provide them with an example of God’s unconditional love.

“You know, lots of times, kids who especially struggle with reading don’t like to read aloud, but they will read to a dog,” Mrs. Burns affirmed. “We’re trying to work in a number of ways to help support our kiddos to meet challenges in life.”

In her own experience, Mrs. Burns witnessed how her family pet made a difference in her and her husband’s lives.

“So, I thought, wow, this has made an impact on our lives as adults. I can only imagine how this could help our kids,” she explained. 

 Likewise, Mrs. Johnston envisions Scout “being a reading partner with the students. They can read to her, or if they’re having a hard day, they can come in and sit with her.”

“She’ll go with me into the classes,” the counselor continued. “She’ll help me start my guidance lessons.”

She looks forward to the many different conversations that will springboard from Scout’s presence at St. Rita.

“One of the great conversations to have as a guidance counselor with students is making sure they take care of themselves and take care of animals too. We’re all God’s creatures, you know. We have to take care of all of them.”


Scout lays down during a class on August 30, 2023, at St. Rita Catholic School in Fort Worth. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Scouting Faith

A pink faux-fur rug bordered by bright red tape makes up Scout’s safe place in Mrs. Johnston’s office. The tape signals a boundary for both Scout and visitors who come in. Eventually, her husband plans to construct the puppy a wooden playpen that will secure Scout whenever she needs to be kenneled in the office and the rug will be a safe place for students to sit with the puppy and receive some comfort and company.

“When I lost my mom in May, I was just sad and alone. And so, it really helped [with Scout] coming into my life; it gave me purpose and got me moving again,” Mrs. Johnston said as she gently petted Scout, who was laid out on her pink rug next to the counselor’s desk.

Mrs. Johnston believes that Scout has been equally uplifting for the school environment. She’s been at St. Rita for eleven years, but in these past few weeks, the counselor has seen a brighter student reception than ever before in all her years of education. She credits the change to Scout’s presence at St. Rita.

“I feel like Scout’s going to bring our school even closer. She bonds us because by taking care of her, we’re creating a community of joy,” Mrs. Johnston affirmed. “Scout has brought so much joy and happiness to our St. Rita community. It’s been really neat to see how the atmosphere has changed at our school, and I think she's going to bring a lot of faith and [allow students] to be able to show love and know that this is God’s creature.”

Seeing just how smitten her faculty and student body are with the golden pup, Mrs. Burns agreed.

“We're blessed to have a loving community. Everybody's happy to see sweet Scout on campus,” she said. “The parents have been supportive, the kids are thrilled, and teachers like to take a break during the day to go visit with Scout because we all need a little love from our therapy dog during the day.”

Scout waits for students to pass by while at work at Rita Catholic School, on August 30, 2023. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

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