Disabled dog melts hearts, teaches life lessons

Alexandra Mester
The Blade

Toledo — Central Catholic High School’s newest staffer has four legs but gets around mostly on two — or on wheels.

Georgia is a young English bulldog mix now attending classes every day with her owner, psychology and sociology teacher Kristin McKinley. McKinley adopted the disabled canine in July from the Lenawee Humane Society in Adrian and began taking her to classes a few weeks ago.

“I’ve been wanting an emotional therapy dog for years for my classroom,” she said. “I’ve seen so many impacts of how it increases oxytocin in adolescents and helps them develop healthy relationships. … An animal can be so powerful.”

Georgia, an English bulldog mix, sits in a classroom at Central Catholic High School in Toledo, Ohio, on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. Georgia is training to become a therapy dog with help from the student. (Andy Morrison/The Blade via AP)

Once all the logistics were figured out, it was easy to obtain approval to bring Georgia to the school. Kevin Parkins, head of school, knows how beneficial a school therapy dog can be after previous experience with one at Cardinal Stritch Catholic High School and Academy in the Toledo suburb of Oregon.

“The response from the community was very affirmative and positive,” Parkins said. “She’s got such a beautiful story of perseverance. Georgia’s a great example of having to deal with the cards that have been dealt to her. I like to say she’s got the strongest shoulders in the school.”

Georgia’s shoulders are indeed buff because she has very limited use of her rear legs and uses her front limbs to pull herself along. She was originally found as a stray in Atlanta and had a serious infection that eroded the bones in her rear legs.

A Radio Flyer wagon is her other mode of transportation for now while students help her get comfortable with a custom canine wheelchair by applying the positive reinforcement method they are learning about in class.

“We’re using psychology to practice getting her seeing the wheelchair as a positive thing and not a negative thing,” McKinley said.

They are teaching Georgia basic obedience commands in the same way.

While Georgia is benefiting from the love, attention, and training, McKinley said students are likewise benefiting. Not only are they reinforcing their classroom learning by helping Georgia, but her presence is lowering stress levels, uplifting spirits, and providing other valuable life lessons.

“They’re learning to be highly empathetic, to see how a dog who has some special needs and is physically disabled still comes every day, happy just to be loved,” McKinley said. “It’s developing high patience too, because sometimes animals don’t want to cooperate.”

Senior Mikayla Duckett said the dog is “motivation to be a better person” and is helping break down barriers among students. Georgia loves everyone, regardless of their individual differences.

“We all love Georgia and everybody respects each other more now because Georgia doesn’t care about anything like that,” Duckett said. “She doesn’t care that she has a disability, and it makes you want to be like her. Just happy.”

Students immediately began gravitating toward Georgia when she began attending school, McKinley said, including those who don’t take a psychology or sociology class. She said they abandon their electronics in favor of interacting with Georgia and will sit with her and talk to each other.

Brookelynn Madison, a senior, said just having Georgia around makes everyone happier and more relaxed, especially when they are stressed or going through a difficult time.

“It’s very fortunate that we can have an emotional support dog here,” she said. “I know a lot of students that will just sit next to her and be more comfortable, just feel better with her.”

Parkins said there’s a notable energy around McKinley’s classroom, and students and staff alike can’t seem to help themselves when they see her.

“That bulldog face just melts away people’s hearts,” he said.