School dog Fala assists in counseling program

Freshman counselor Polly Vader explains how Fala affects her students


Who is Fala?

Ms. Fala is a fully-trained service dog who comes to school with me everyday to service our students here at Mill Valley and also at Mill Creek Middle School. Her first purpose is to service persons with disabilities. [Another is to be] an emotional support to students, parents and staff. This is her fourth school year [working].

Who can see Fala and when?

She’s here with me in the office all the time so anytime a student comes down to the counseling office to talk to me about anything, they have access to hang out with Fala. Fala’s here Monday and Wednesday and every other full Friday. If you’re on passing period and you drop by and say hello, absolutely I encourage that. After school or before school [also work], she’s always here. I would love that. Usually during the day students can’t be missing a lot of class, [so during that time] it really is just to focus on student needs.

What is Fala’s training like?

[From] about a year old to two years old they go through … puppy college. The first semester they refine and work on basic commands and then the second semester they’re doing higher-thinking type commands. [The dogs] also work on not getting distracted.

What are some tricks that Fala knows?

She was taught about fifty-five commands. Some of them are really subtle and you wouldn’t notice that she’s doing it, but a lot of them are to service somebody with a disability. She’s able to open doors, shut doors, pick things up, carry anything up to five pounds, and she can turn on and off light switches … Here, the commands she uses a lot are sit, down, and she does a ‘lap’ command, which is when she puts her two paws over your lap. That one’s used a lot because then the student’s able to cuddle and snuggle and say hi to the pup.

Do you have any interesting or funny Fala stories?

One of my favorite stories is of one time when I was working with a student who was pretty upset. I was trying to talk to them, trying to help them out. They needed to talk but just didn’t want to. Fala knows how to respond to emotions and … she sat down next to the student and she looked at the student and [makes] the loudest human burp you’ve ever heard. I kept apologizing to the student … and the student just busted out laughing. From that moment on, we were able to work through what they were going through. It was like she knew we needed an icebreaker. It was hilarious the way she decided to go about it. That is one of the funniest Fala stories. There’s a lot of things she’s done to help people and help people calm down which are all really touching, awesome stories.

Where does Fala go when not at work?

She comes home with me. She still has rules at home. She’s not allowed treats … she’s been taught to work for praise and love because [otherwise she’d] only work for food. [Also,] I’m required to keep her at a certain weight because working dogs are a lot harder on their hips and backs. Once you take off your jacket and go home she’ll play frisbee, she likes to run around with a bone in her mouth, she’s still a dog.

What is your relationship with Fala?

Our relationship really started as a professional, working [one] because we worked together and that’s really the only way I knew her. But now, she’s a part of my family. She’s basically my firstborn daughter. She comes home with me every single night, we’re together all day at work, all night over the summers. She’s my best friend, and she is pretty good at it.

How did Fala get her name?

The company gives the host family a letter for every litter that is born. Fala … was from the F litter. Also, she’s named after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s dog, so Fala’s actually officially Fala II. She didn’t have a middle name so [I gave her one]. K-State … their original mascot … was a black lab named Bosco. So now her name’s Fala Bosco Vader. And it’s not after the bosco sticks in the lunchroom which is what most of the Mill Creek students think cause they love bosco sticks. I’m like, no, I didn’t name her after a cheese stick, but those are really good.

How does Fala assist in counseling?

A large part of our job as counselors that students don’t always see is that we work really closely with parents as well. I had a parent that was pretty upset one day and in my office. Fala notices that the parent is upset and walks around into the middle of the chairs and sits down and puts her little head right on the parent’s lap. You could just see [the parent take] a deep breath and relax. [They] started to talk about their dog and show me pictures of their dog. The ability to open that line of communications and to calm them down … it just made the whole conversation the rest of the afternoon just [better].

Does the company have any requirements for Fala?

They fly back here every year and check up on her. They come and make sure she still knows her commands, she has to pass a test every year. I have to send in her vet reports, and they check on her weight and health and all that … They really take pride in making sure their placements are effective which I think is phenomenal.

What do you enjoy about being able to work with Fala?

I just enjoy seeing other people’s reactions with Fala, how she’s able to make such an impact in students’ lives but also staff members’. Even if she just meets a student once, it’s like they forever remember her. Which I really think is the coolest thing ‘cause don’t we all kind of want to have that impact on people, to impact somebody so positively that they forever remember you? And she can do that with almost everyone. It just blows my mind.

What does Fala enjoy doing outside of work?

She loves going to the lake, it’s her favorite place. We go to Lake of the Ozarks and she loves the swim area and she loves to go on the boat. She has a life jacket. She likes her little ears to fly in the wind. They have this restaurant on the water that lets you take your dog in and give them a big bowl of water and she thinks it’s awesome. It is one of her favorite things. That, and frisbee.

What made you want to participate in the working dog program?

When I became a counselor I went to a counseling conference and there was a woman there who had a CCI dog who did a presentation about how she used her dog at work and how it’s helped support her counseling students. I walked away from there first of all in awe of this dog and second of all thinking “I have got to do this, this sounds so amazing.”

How did you get Fala?

I presented to the board of education about what working dogs do so I got the district okay. After that I filled out an application [for the working dog company] and submitted it. Actually, it was a pretty lengthy process, the application itself. It was very detail-oriented about my personal life and also my work life. [For example it asked] exactly the dimensions of what the house would look like … basically a lot of background information on who I am, how I would utilize her… Then … I did an about thirty-minute phone call interview with one of the directors there. After that I flew [to the company’s headquarters where] I had a group interview in the morning and an individual interview that afternoon … I heard back that I was accepted so they put me on a waiting list. This went on through probably September/October through the winter in December/January and that April they called me and said we think we have a match for you, we want you to come to training.

What did your training entail?

The week-long training’s first day was just getting to know the facility and then [starting] learning the commands. As a human we had to get trained because the dog was already trained. So we had to learn all of the commands, how to work with the dog appropriately, how to be a working team. They had us start working with different dogs in the facility. The third day they have the big reveal of which dog you’re been matched with and then you get to take the dog back to the hotel with you that night. At the end we had to pass a big certification test with them.

How did you introduce Fala to the school?

I haven’t been able to do this at Mill Valley but at Mill Creek every year I go in and do a Fala etiquette lesson.Here … haven’t gotten the oppurtunity to do that. This year since I’m just the freshman counselor I went into the freshman classes and we talked about her, how she’s here and you can come see her and I just did that. So now when students our coming in their freshman year they’ll hear that and know going through high school that she’s still here. So I’m hoping that will help get the word out about her.

Are school dogs common?

I don’t know that specifically, but since Fala there’s been a boom in dogs in our district. Prior to Fala there was one dog who worked here and now has moved on to another building but after Fala there’s become a lot more common in our district. I can’t be sure of other schools to have them. For people who have disabilities who have a need for a dog to have a service dog, absolutely [it is common]. Also, our district has kept it so some schools are dog-free so if someone has a severe allergy they could have a dog-free school option. So at each level there’s a dog-free school, like Monticello Trails is dog-free, DeSoto High School is dog-free, and different elementaries on different sides of the district are dog-free.

Is there anything you have to do to avoid trouble with allergies?

That’s a good question, we do have students who have dog allergies here … One of the requirements that I have with Fala since she is a working dog is that I have to groom her and bathe her often … that right there helps to eliminate a lot of dander. Plus because she’s a working dog, she’s not outside a whole lot. If there’s a student that has a severe allergy … I make sure that they have a dog-free counseling area … Also we make sure that the hallways they walk through and the classes they’re in, that Fala doesn’t go there.

Does Fala attend school activites?

I have not taken her to any games at Mill Valley yet, but she has gone to a lot of sporting events at Mill Creek, because it’s still only my second year at Mill Valley so I’m still new here. I used to teach cheerleading at DeSoto and she went to every cheerleading practice and about every cheerleading event, so all football games, basketball games, she was there. She was kind of like the cheer squad mascot. They loved her.

Who covers her expenses?

I do. Here’s the deal: it’s not a requirement of my job to have a dog, so I would never expect the district to fund that because I can function in my job without a dog. But I just wanted to do it because I feel like it brings a lot to the job and it has really helped me to build those relationships with students and staff members and just service students in a different way, so yeah, I take on the expense of that. Really, it’s [the same as if I had a] pet dog: vet bills, food; and I would have a pet dog anyway.

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