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Two area school systems welcome facility dogs

| May 22, 2024
Tusky Valley officials recently welcomed the school district's first-ever facility dogs: Yikity Yak (left, with handler Heidi Varansky) and Hank (right, with Lisa Owen).

The Newcomerstown school district now has two facility dogs. Gram (right) has been on the job since last Friday learning the ropes from the school’s first canine helper Otto (left).

ZOARVILLE (WJER) (May 22, 2024) – Tusky Valley students have someone new to turn to for comfort and support during the school day. 

The district recently welcomed a pair of therapy dogs that Superintendent Derek Varansky introduced during last Monday’s school board meeting. Hank is part of the elementary school staff and works alongside 5th-grade teacher Lisa Owen, while Yikity Yak is paired up with Varansky’s wife Heidi.

“We thought we knew who it was gonna be at the Middle/High School, and that person said ‘no’ and then there was a whole list of people that we went through, and next thing I know [Principal] Jason [Phillips] had asked my wife, and she agreed to it.”  

The two of them have been on the job for almost three weeks now.

“You can already see a difference in the kids’ faces and how excited they are and how excited staff are.”

ADAMHS Board Executive Director Natalie Bollon approached Varansky about acquiring therapy dogs for the schools after seeing several at work following last year’s charter bus tragedy.

“For every dog there were about 15, 20 kids wrapped around the dogs waiting for a chance to pet them, waiting for a chance to get close to them, and they would smile on a day where it found like nobody found a smile. As the dogs went through the buildings and at the different events, it was consistent over and over: The dogs were what these kids needed.” 

Bollon credits State Senator Al Landis.

“He called me back and said he was sitting with the owner of the Smucker Foundation and that they had a lot of connections and they wanted to be able to help out in some way, and I said ‘Well, how about therapy dogs?’ And low and behold, the Smucker Foundation had some connections.”

Also last week, the Newcomerstown Board of Education approved that district’s second facility dog – a Golden Retriever named Gram. His handler is Intervention Specialist Brittany Moore, who originally adopted him as a family pet.

“I got Gram when he was a puppy, and I just kind of saw how he was with people. There were some instances where some people were upset and something happened so he was comforting them.”

West Elementary Principal Erin Peoples welcomes the addition.

“Actually, we brought Gram on because the need is so great. Otto is primarily at West School and goes over to the other buildings when they need him. So Gram is gonna be more of a traveler.  Next year, our guidance counselor is gonna be able to take him when she’s at the Middle School, so he’ll be able to see kids in both buildings.” 

Gram went through a specialized training program and passed his certification test last Monday. Tusky Valley’s facility dogs are both Golden Doodles that came from the Canine Companions organization in Atlanta, Georgia.

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