The date was August 8th, 2017 – school had been out for roughly a month and the students of Staten Island Tech were scattered all over the globe. Some chose to stay in Staten Island to pursue their professional endeavors, while others went on vacation with their families. Wherever they were, the news was completely unexpected – Tech was officially approved for the NYC DOE’s Comfort Dog Program, meaning a certain pooch would be joining the faculty in the fall. We named him Sheldon.
Coming in as a shy pup with a calm demeanor, Sheldon was an immediate hit with both students and teachers. He would get countless visits on a daily basis, which took some getting used to. To help him assimilate, he was given a personal trainer in addition to DOE’s six mandated training sessions. Fourth months later, Sheldon is 9 months old and incredibly energetic and playful. But growing up comes with a busier schedule, even for dogs.
Here’s a typical day in Sheldon’s week: After having a good night’s sleep at Ms. Hansalik’s house, both his owner and an AP U.S. History teacher at Tech, Sheldon joins the students entering the school for his first period of the day – Relaxation with Mr. Erlenwein, the principal. After some time alone and a walk or two, he greets students from fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh lunch periods who come to play with him. Some time later, Mr. Erlenwein takes him up to an AP Psychology class, where he demonstrates the commands Sheldon has learned: come, sit, stay, and leave it.
Given this, the students were able to see the concepts they learned in action, particularly positive reinforcement and shaping. For those of you into psychology, you’re in for a treat. Positive reinforcement came into play when Mr. Erlenwein would make a gesture for Sheldon to sit, following the completion of the behavior with a delicious treat. The “leave it” command demonstrated shaping, a term used to describe achieving a desired behavior by reinforcing the steps leading up to the action. In other words, Sheldon had to first learn to sit, then stay, and finally the “leave it” command.
On another day of the week, Sheldon visited a freshman Health class focusing on the “Balance of Mind, Body and Spirit,” a lesson detailed in the Comfort Dog Program curriculum, which Mr. Erlenwein reported to be a huge success. After that, Sheldon went to the guidance counselor’s office, where he did what he does best, comfort. All in a day’s work.
What did Tech do to deserve such a gift? This would normally be a rhetorical question, but thankfully, Mr. Erlenwein has an answer for us:
“Animals change the tone and atmosphere of any setting and I think having one is very fitting for our school. Our students think outside of the box, and deserve all of the ways we can make life better here. We really try to make it comfortable – a home away from home.”
We all appreciate Sheldon’s presence immensely and can’t wait to witness his future impact on the Tech family.