by HANNA DYKEMA
Westfield, IN (Jan. 27, 2020) - Pierson, a short black lab with a love for toys and a dislike for cars, has the significant role of caring for the students when they need him the most. His journey to earning his job required discipline, focus, and determination.
The four-legged friend who has helped many students and staff throughout his years of service went through weeks of training through the Indiana Canine Assistant Network (ICAN). He was trained daily at the Indiana Women’s Prison by one of the offenders there. He also trained there for two weeks alongside Becky Sondgeroth, who takes care of Pierson after school, and Kim Massaro, who used to teach the Life Skills class.
“We would do different commands with him and learn new ones every single day,” Sondgeroth said. “We had other activities where they would do things with scary sounds or scary people to try to see how he would handle things as they came up in our setting.”
From opening doors, playing games, to even moving furniture, Pierson can do around 75 actions.
“He really is one of the most talented dogs I’ve ever seen in that program,” Sondgeroth said. “His ability to learn a new command. Three tries and he’s good to go.”
While Pierson did an outstanding job throughout his training, he struggled with getting along with other dogs that he met, which is something that he’s still working on now.
“He’s scared to death of other dogs,” Sondgeroth said. “He just will do a warning bark if he’s uncomfortable, and then he rolls over and submits. We did different activities with dogs there to make sure he could cope and not lash out.”
Pierson was initially trained to be a diabetes alert dog, so he has the ability to help students and staff get the help they need if they don’t notice that their blood sugar level is off.
“If he comes up to you he shouldn’t touch you until we release him,” Sondgeroth said. “But if he’s bothered by your level, he’ll nudge you. And if you don’t go check your sugar, he’ll nudge you harder.”
Pierson was hired at WHS after the Interact Club, whose goal is to do service projects for the school, raised money to get a facility dog. Since his years of working here, he has been able to help many students with anxiety and has put a smile on other’s faces. Lauren Brooks, who works in the counseling center and takes care of Pierson while he’s working, has seen him show his compassion to many students and staff.
“He’s a motivator for our students in a lot of different aspects,” Brooks said. “He brings comfort to everybody depending on what it is that they need. He helps students socialize with their peers also.”
Freshman Lily Swartz is one of the many students that Pierson has been able to help.
“I was having a bad day, and I just pet him,” Swartz said. “I definitely felt much more relaxed and overall really happy and in a much better mood. A facility dog just sends endorphins when you’re petting them and you can’t really get that from talking to people.”
Along with helping kids who are stressed, Pierson also spends a lot of time with the kids in the Life Skills class, often playing games or letting them groom him. By going to gym class with the special need’s students, they are able to get active by playing with him.
“Just motivating them to do things that they wouldn’t do otherwise because they want to be able to groom him,” Sondgeroth said. “He’ll have some rough days where he gets physically assaulted, but it helps those kids unwind and get back to what they should be doing.”
Aside from working, Pierson keeps himself busy by playing with his favorite toys, which include a stuffed taco, a hedgehog, and a log filled with squeaky squirrels. His favorite games include fetch, hide and seek, and all sorts of brain games.
“He loves to play with his toys,” Brooks said. “you’ll find cotton stuffing everywhere.”
From playing with his toys for fun to helping students/staff in serious times of need, Pierson has become an important part of the Westfield community.
“Pierson is a happy go along dog that impacts WHS students and staff by creating a positive environment,” Swartz said.