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Tucker's first day back to school

Tucker resting at Partnership Middle School


That, along with a few yawns, was the only quote Tucker could muster after his first day back to school on August 8. The 3-year-old Golden Doodle is serving his third year as a therapy dog at Starkville Oktibbeha School District's Partnership Middle School, and he enjoyed a fun-filled day greeting students again after a summer off.

Laura Prisock, Tucker's "dog mom", owner and primary handler, shared that despite his lack of comments, he was overjoyed to see students and staff, and had a full day of activities getting back into his work routine. Prisock serves as the SafeSpace Project Coordinator at PMS where she focuses on school climate and culture.

Tucker greets student during morning carpool

On his first day back to school, Tucker arrived at Partnership Middle School during carpool and immediately knew how to use the crosswalk at Mrs. Prisock's command. He greeted students and teachers as they entered the building and was quickly surrounded by 6th and 7th graders eager to pet and welcome him back.

"My favorite part," Prisock said, "was seeing students who really grew to love Tucker last year get to see him again after the summer. He loved all of the attention and pets and knew he was back in business!"

For the rest of the school day, Tucker enjoyed a special dog photo shoot, visiting classrooms, eating treats, playing outside, napping in his school bed in the nurse's office, and playing with new toys brought by one of the Partnership students.

"I laugh when I tell people 'it’s hard to be in a bad mood when you are petting a dog' and that pretty much sums it up," Prisock said. "Tucker plays a huge role in the culture at Partnership Middle."

That improvement in school culture is exactly what made Prisock approach administrators about bringing a therapy dog to Partnership Middle School. She says that during graduate school she came across a research article outlining the benefits of therapy animals and citing a "puppy room" designed to alleviate stress on a university campus. When she pitched the idea of a therapy dog to Partnership Principal, Jorine Neal, the administrator jumped at the chance to incorporate this innovative approach to building wellness on campus.

"Tucker is truly serving his purpose at Partnership Middle School," Neal said. "He knows exactly how to engage with both students and staff, and has been a real blessing on campus."

Tucker visits a classroom at Partnership Middle SchoolMrs. Neal describes how Tucker provides a calming presence in classrooms as students take tests. During class transitions, his presence in the hallway as students file by offers opportunities for a friendly hello or pat on the head. These interactions help to create a positive environment for students and staff, no matter what they are facing each day.

Studies chronicling the impact of therapy dogs in the school environment record impacts like improved attendance, problem-solving abilities and socio-emotional development. Therapy dogs have even been shown to contribute to cognitive development, improving reading, enhancing executive-functioning skills and stimulating memory. 

The presence of a therapy animal in an educational environment also tends to improve attention, concentration, relaxation and motivation among students and helps to reduce stress levels that might adversely impact learning. For Prisock, she sees more tangible benefits.

"These friendly companions are good listeners," she says. "They offer companionship and a great audience to children without making any judgements."

She has seen how this interaction helps students gain confidence and feel more connected to the school environment in a positive way.

Students pet Tucker"Tucker being on campus seems to bring the entire mood of the building to a better place," Prisock explains. "He just seems to know when his presence is needed in a situation. It's very cool to watch."

She also adds that Tucker's presence tends to bring out the "kid" in everyone.

"Tucker will bring a group of moody preteens together and have them laughing and throwing his toys around quicker than any intervention."

Mrs. Neal echoes Prisock's observations.

"He is a perfect member of our staff," Neal says. "When Tucker is on campus, the day is filled with smiles."

In preparation for Tucker's first day back to school on Tuesday, August 8, Prisock developed a one-page information sheet introducing the therapy dog and distributed it to parents on the Friday before his arrival. Staff was available to answer questions from students and families on Monday, and it also allowed the anticipation to build for his arrival Tuesday morning.

Tucker visits the school bus

"Whenever there are stressors, sadness, frustrations or just anxiety -- like what students often experience during the first few weeks of school -- Tucker's presence seems to provide the small distraction needed to get everyone to a positive place," Prisock said. "It only takes a few seconds for Tucker to turn someone's mood completely around."

While Tucker's first day back to school may have helped to alleviate some of those new school year stressors students and staff experience, the pup's own stress level was squarely on "happy place."

"Tucker was so happy to be back on campus," Prisock added. "But, he was worn out after his first day back! He was asleep as soon as we got home."

Good dog.