Therapy dog changes attitudes at Gillette school

Aryanna Sherman, 15, pets Ruby after finishing a final exam at Thunder Basin High School in Gillette. Ruby is a therapy dog credited with helping students reduce their stress levels at school. (Photo by August Frank, Gillette News Record)

GILLETTE — Ruby, wearing her red vest, lay on her puppy bed in the classroom of her companion and owner.

There, with the lights dimmed during final testing the week before Christmas, two young students at Thunder Basin High School came into the classroom to lay with and pet the yellow Lab.

One girl stroked Ruby as she listened to music. The other lay her head on Ruby and later listened to tunes with one of two connected earbuds. Their focus, and relaxation, was all on Ruby, “a people person,” as her owner Brittany Singhas describes her.

The girls frequent Singhas’ math classroom whenever they know Ruby is there. Other students keep an eye open for her as well. They often congregate around Ruby in the busy hallway during passing periods.

The power of Ruby is there for all to feel. She comes with her own trading cards, her mug shot in the school yearbook and her therapy dog badge safely tucked into her vest.

Ruby, perhaps the most popular girl at Thunder Basin High, is not quite 2 years old. But she’s a veteran at mending and comforting hearts.

Singhas, a Campbell County School District math teacher for the past four years, bought Ruby from an Iowa family in last year. Picking her up on Mother’s Day, she always had this in mind for Ruby.

They would FaceTime until Singhas could pick up Ruby and bring her back to Wyoming.

She named the gentle, calm syellow Lab Ruby because she was bright red just a few days after being born.Singhas chose her out of the litter because she was the “mother hen” who calmly watched or mothered her siblings, even at just a few weeks old.

Now as a therapy dog, Ruby is still mothering others, but on a much grander scale.

When she is working, Ruby wears her vest emblazoned with “Sit Means Sit Dog Training” for the K-9 Caring Angels, a Casper group. Singhas and Ruby underwent training there during the summer to earn their certification.

She brings Ruby to school at least once a month and looks forward to the day they can work with people at the library, cancer patients at the Heptner Cancer Center in Gillette or the Legacy Living and Rehabilitation Center.

In many cases, there may be no better comfort than a dog, and Ruby seems to know best when she’s most needed.

Ruby’s training covered her behavior in all kinds of places. Singhas and Ruby had to pass tests at each location — similar to those places in Gillette — to receive certification. Ruby couldn’t show any aggression in her tests.

If Ruby’s in her vest, she’s working. If she doesn’t have it on, she’s a fun puppy that likes to roll in the snow, gallop from place to place and stop to either smell things or paw over them.

At Thunder Basin, there may be no other tension like finals week. So, Ruby spent more than three days in school. When her toddler gate is up in the classroom doorway, Ruby is in the building. Teachers and students will seek her out.

She has her blanket, pillow and a stuffed bunny toy with her on her dog bed, which she’ll rearrange for her own comfort before laying down to catch a few Zs between visits from students and teachers needing a break. Then there are the passing periods, where she is a center of attention.

When the gate is not in use, Ruby is at home suffers from separation anxiety if Singhas leaves the room.

Appropriately, one of the signs displayed in the classroom reads: $5 fine for whining. But Ruby only seems to whine, quietly, if she knows someone needs her calming presence and she can’t get to them.

The teen years are often filled with emotions, disappointments and more feelings than some can struggle with or don’t know how to deal with. Even teachers call out to Ruby for comfort. They also find they need their “Ruby time,” Singhas said.

Both Singhas and TBHS Instructional Facilitator Jen Clark have been amazed at Ruby’s effect at the school.

“When we were trying to get to know the kids a lot, some of the kids were like, ‘oh, I have anxiety and depression,’ and they’d come out and tell you that and you’re like, ‘OK ... let’s not focus on what you have, but focus on getting through.’ And that’s how, I think, she can help with that,” Singhas said.

“The benefit, I think, is there have been therapy dogs for a long time. I don’t think this is necessarily anything new for us here,” Clark said. “Using it here, I think it is significant and has a positive impact on our kids. We want (what’s best for kids), and that’s our goal, and if it helps to relieve some of that testing anxiety ... “

“Emotion, whatever, calm,” Singhas finished.

Already emotional and sometimes overwhelmed, teens need that “every way they can get it,” Clark said.

They haven’t just seen Ruby help youth cope with roiling emotions, though. They’ve also seen her improve academic performances.

Singhas is keeping comparisons of testing on Ruby and non-Ruby days. She doesn’t yet have a large enough sample to come to any validated conclusions, but the trend is showing improvement.

“I’m seeing more positive growth,” Singhas said. “There’s been more growth when she’s there and more, almost like focus. I think it’s a focus because they almost take a brain break because she’s there to give them that brain break. But then they can refocus on the test and show that knowledge. It’s kind of weird. I don’t know how to explain it.

“We do what we do because we want what’s best for kids. And that’s No. 1 always.”

Singhas didn’t expect that so much at Thunder Basin at first.

“Oh gosh. I thought I’d get more power once we got in, like, the cancer center and we got set up. I didn’t think we’d see it here,” she said. “And she can do more for them than I could do ever. I wish I could do what she does for those kids. I don’t know if she knows what she’s doing, but when you see sometimes there’s so much emotion. They just need that.”

Singhas has seen her puppy spark remarkable individual growth too.

Weldon Steele, 17, came to school this year wheelchair bound and unable to walk. He had few communicative skills and used an iPad to do much of his talking.

Then he met Ruby.

On the day before Christmas break started, Steele waited patiently for Singhas and Ruby to come downstairs to the commons.

Ruby has helped him learn to walk, even run, through the first two semesters. The strides he’s made are amazing to watch..

When she arrived, Steele put his own leash on Ruby, then took her outdoors on a chilly, blustery day so he could run with her.

They moved indoors and Steele sat Ruby in the seat of his wheelchair, posing with her for photos near a Christmas tree in the hallway leading from the commons.

Then he dashed off, running again through the school. Singhas and other instructors could barely keep up with him. His thighs trembling from the effort, Steele put Ruby in his chair and pushed her a little a down the hall. He spoke to her and everyone crowded around him, grinning broadly.

Steele has come far with Ruby’s help. Hopefully he can go even farther this school year.

That’s the power of Ruby.