FRANKLIN COUNTY, Ky. (LEX 18) — At Elkhorn Middle School, the sound of paws can be heard prancing through the halls. It is a welcome sound during a year of so many challenges.
Winston, the 9-month-old Russell terrier is a certified therapy dog and companion to sixth-grade language arts teacher Susan Hellard. Hellard got Winston in the middle of the pandemic and he soon became a star in her Zoom classroom, helping her connect with her students even without seeing each other in person.
"He was definitely one of our cheerleaders," Hellard said.
When it came time to return to in-person instruction, Hellard approached her principal about bringing Winston with her.
"It's not uncommon for Mrs. Hellard to come with some out-of-the-box ideas to begin with," chuckled Principal Jeff Rhode.
Rhode and the district were fully on board, and Winston officially became an Elkhorn Elk. Now, Winston welcomes kids into school each week. Teachers and administrators marvel at how he has eased nerves and tension during an anxiety-ridden time.
Hellard said of the students, "They were pretty timid. You know, coming back to school after being off for so long causes a lot of anxiety. I think it was a lot less intimidating to walk up to someone who has a dog."
Math teacher Laura Pennington said you can see it in students' body language. Winston is a motivator and encourager. Just by being there, he teaches about caring, kindness and consistency.
"You can see so many smiles under masks. You can see it in the kids' eyes. They all get excited to see Winston, " Pennington said.
Even teachers said it has helped them find some calm in a time when so much has been unknown. Winston is providing comfort and even unity, the way only a dog can.
"It has made this whole space more of a community," Hellard said.