Twinkle, a Canine Companions service dog, is the newest addition to WSHS, WCSD

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The newest member of the Wildcat family will make its debut on Monday at the side of social worker and mental health specialist Noelle Spriestersbach.

Twinkle, a 2-year-old Lab-Golden Retriever and Canine Companions service dog, will be dedicated to Westerville South High School before eventually supporting the social-emotional needs of students across the district next school year.

“Twinkle is going to be a really wonderful resource for our journey in supporting the whole child so they can achieve as learners,” said Spriestersbach, who serves as Twinkle’s primary handler. 

“We know students are not walking into the building with the same experiences and anxiety levels. It’s another resource and support for students to be connected, self-regulated and engaged at a level for them to be really successful.”

Spriestersbach and Jessie Martin, the district’s Mental Health Facilitator, have spent the past week working with Twinkle at the Canine Companions North Central Training Center in New Albany. They’ve learned how to serve as Twinkle’s handler, practicing her basic and advanced commands that will be used while working with students. Spriestersbach, who will care for Twinkle outside of school, has been deepening her bond with the dog, bringing her home to connect with her family, kids and their own Golden Retriever.

On Friday, Spriestersbach and Martin celebrated Twinkle’s graduation ceremony, which marked the end of her professional training from breeder caretakers, puppy raisers, instructors and volunteers and the beginning of a partnership with Westerville City Schools. 

“Twinkle is amazing,” said Martin, who serves as Twinkle’s secondary handler. “It’s a lot of fun to work with her and see the potential she has to help our students with her specific skills.”

Westerville Education Challenge provided the district with additional support to make this project possible.

Both Spriestersbach and Martin have been interested in bringing a service dog to support students’ social and emotional needs. Martin received messages from staff members across the district looking to bring a therapy dog to their school.

Spriestersbach, meanwhile, observed that students she worked with at WSHS gravitated toward a stuffed cat she kept in her office, petting it while they talked to her. She dove into research that found service dogs provide significant anti-stress effects on the body and offer stability and comfort.

“It was another way to engage and make students feel reflected in their space,” she said. “A lot of students identify as dog people or animal lovers so it was a way to acknowledge and reflect that.”

“Therapeutically, the petting rhythm is helpful in regulating the sensory mindfulness of touching. But a stuffed cat will only get you so far.”

Martin learned of a Canine Companions service dog at New Albany-Plain Local Schools. She and Spriestersbach met with its handler, Jon Hood, director of student services, safety and security, and through the conversation, they realized a Canine Companions “facility” dog would be a better fit for the district’s needs than a therapy dog.

While owners can train their pets to become therapy dogs, Canine Companions service dogs are bred for the work and undergo 4,000 hours of training as a puppy and another 1,000 hours at the Canine Companions training center. 

Canine Companions facility dogs are highly-trained to help children, adults, and veterans with disabilities and professionals working in healthcare, criminal justice and education settings. Canine Companions service dogs can perform more than 40 commands designed to motivate and inspire people with disabilities to live more independently and assist those who need support in building resilience

For example, Twinkle can push open doors, pick up baskets, pull carts and lay on someone’s lap — all on command. 

Spriestersbach and Martin started the application process in September and after various interviews, they were approved to receive a Canine Companions service dog.

“We are incredibly grateful to Canine Companions and the people that support them in helping us help support and encourage our students in their social-emotional growth and healing,” Spriestersbach said. “I am incredibly grateful to be able to go on this adventure and see where it leads and helps our students and meets our students in a different way. I hope this helps us reach more kids.”

She plans to acclimate Twinkle to WSHS gradually, starting with a couple of hours a day next week so she can adjust to the building and her new environment. Spriestersbach will work with her on specialized commands in the summer before fully integrating her at school this fall.

Martin will continue to train with Twinkle for the remainder of the school year so she can eventually bring Twinkle to buildings across the district. She said Twinkle can help in specialized learning classrooms by providing additional de-escalation and calming support. She can also be on-hand at buildings during emergency situations to help students regulate. 

“She’s very sweet and so attentive,” Spriestersbach said. “You can just tell she wants to connect and help.”