Gus pours out ‘tail-waggin’ H.A.B.I.T. program therapy for HVES fourth-graders

Hardin Valley Elementary School fourth-grader Addison McHugh reads with Gus, a Human Bond in Tennessee dog, during Beth McCoy’s class Friday, Feb. 1.
Gus, a 4-year-old French bulldog, is helping Hardin Valley Elementary School fourth-graders not only with their reading, but also with facing stressful situations and other tough issues.

Gus, a Human Bond in Tennessee therapy dog, attends fourth-grade teacher Beth McCoy’s class every Friday as part of the H.A.B.I.T. program coordinated by the University of Tennessee.

McCoy’s students said Gus, who is McCoy’s dog, calms them down and makes them happy.

“He makes us laugh,” Aiden Wilkinson said.

“He makes you want to wake up,” Addison McHugh said.

“I think he’s here to let us read to him and play with him,” Andrew Warner said.

“I think why he’s here to make us concentrate and make us feel better about ourselves, like if we’re sad or something,” Faith Carel said.

“When I’m sad or upset, he makes me glad,” Ella Morgan said.

“That’s why Gus is here, why I wanted him here,” McCoy said.

“H.A.B.I.T. is a community group of volunteers who work with animals, like dogs,” she added, pointing out other animals, such as cats and even rabbits, might be used as well.

“They go into schools, through the Ruff Reading School Program, or they visit hospitals and nursing homes, just to kind of bring animals within those environments to do those things the kids are talking about — relieve stress, bring joy, a wonderful diversion,” McCoy said.

“Gus is here to interact with the kids in a positive way,” she added. “And, you heard from them — it lowers their stress levels; it brings them happiness; it makes them want to be at school.”

McCoy added Gus also helps the children form a bond, not only with him but also with one another.

“Those are all things we, as teachers, want for kids, is for school to be a comforting place, a place where they can enjoy learning,” she said.

“(HVES principal) Dr. (Sunny) Poe was very enthusiastic about doing” the program, McCoy added.

“We’ve known his personality from day one, and he is just the sweetest, most laid-back little guy,” she said of Gus. “French bulldogs have a really sweet personality. They are kind of known for their goofy, clownish behaviors, and they love to interact with people.”

When McCoy observed Gus’ temperament, she realized he would make a good therapy dog, so she contacted H.A.B.I.T. coordinators at UT, had him behaviorally and medically screened,

and went through sessions at the university.

“Right now, Gus comes once a week,” he said. “Since he is my dog, he stays with us all day.

”Normally, H.A.B.I.T. dogs do an hour-long interaction when they visit facilities,” McCoy added.

As part of the H.A.B.I.T. program, students engage in a Positive Behavior Intervention and Support restorative circle, with which they sit in a circle on the floor and talk about how they feel about what is going on in their lives.

McCoy said the children are opening up, adding the circle “helps them feel accepted and cared about.”

As for becoming at H.A.B.I.T. volunteer, “We’ve had other teachers and parents interested in, maybe, going through the process,” McCoy said.

“We’re hoping this volunteer program will grow, not only at Hardin Valley Elementary but also at the middle school and (Hardin Valley) Academy as well.”