Orion's therapy dog in training teaches kids, owner

Sarah Reynolds
Orion Middle School's therapy dog in training, Rion and his owner Stacey Burgert, a counselor with the school.

Orion Middle School has welcomed a new service dog in training.

Rion, whose full name is Orion after his town, has been in training since he was brought home by Stacey Burgert, a counselor at Orion Middle School. He was 12 weeks old when he was adopted. He is now 11 months and has been working and training hard in order to achieve his certification.

Some of this training takes place at OMS. Here, Rion works on his skills, obedience and even helps teach a class. Handler Burgert says, “Right now, we are mostly working on basic, basic skills. We're not doing any kind of tricks or anything like that. We want him to sit and stay. We want him to lay down. We want him to walk with me and not be distracted.

“We are just starting to work off leash, so that he can roam around a little bit,” she said. “We want him to come on command. Find me in a crowd. Greet people. He's getting much better.”

Rion also assists in some classes. Burgert teaches character and Rion has been used as an example.

Burgert says, “He's always a good example for kindness. He's always a good example for patience. We talk a lot about how the way you think affects the way you behave, and you can see those things on Rion. You can see when he's excited. It's contagious.

“Then we talk about our own behavior. How when we're excited, it's contagious. When we're sad, when we're mad, it's contagious.”

He’s also helped out in mindfulness class where they focus on his breathing and when Rion is calm, the students can see the difference.

Rion has a busy schedule, but his favorite activities always involve the students and the faculty. He does have some “jobs” that he participates in every day.

Burgert says, “He loves to be off leash so that he can greet everybody. He really does. He waits for commands. He wants to do well. I would say fetch is probably his favorite job.”

They can always be found in the hallway between classes and Rion also gets to see some people around lunch. Burgert says, “We try to get all of his energy out in the morning so by afternoon he just lays with (the kids) and he's pretty good at that.”

Around lunch he also gets to work on some of his new commands. The one he’s learning now is still a work in progress.

Burgert says, “We have a command called ‘settle’ that he just lays down and the kids sit with him in the afternoon for that and then my reward kids are after lunch usually.”

Burgert has had her own challenges training and working with Orion Middle School’s first therapy dog. She says, “At the beginning it was kind of going slow. I had a hard time figuring out where I wanted to go and what I was doing. I thought I had it all lined out, but I learned along the way.”

The task has come with its own unique challenges though. One such instance is that Rion is still only a puppy and sometimes he can get a little excited. Burgert says, “I think the hardest part is when he's not listening because I feel like it's very much a reflection on me. Or when he's being all puppy, and I have to remember, he is all puppy still.”

Another challenge has been the constant time and effort one must pour into the training and ownership of a therapy dog.

Burgert says, “I've had dogs and I've worked with dogs, but having a dog with you, all the time, 24/7, and teaching him and working against other people that are trying to teach him

other things, it has been so much more than I thought it would be. But it's also satisfying when he finally looks for me in a crowd, comes back to me, and heels. I did that. I taught him that.”

This has also been a learning experience for her. She’s had to set some rules for the people around Rion as well.

She says, “That's one of the things I had to teach: No treats. Treats are for training only. Because that was kind of a distraction to him. Kids can't give him food. I had to train all the people around him as much as I've had to train him.”

Rion is still very much a puppy, and these things can interrupt his training.

All of these challenges are far outweighed by the good and the positive though. Burgert says, “He has been so much more than I had hoped for. Not only do the kids love to see him in the morning but the teachers. So, I mean he's kind of raised morale for all of us.”

Rion, with his friendly nature and his excitement, has already made plenty of new friends at OMS.

“Just instantly, he puts a smile on people's faces. How can you not be excited?” Burgert said. He is clearly loved and loving, especially when it comes to the students. “There’s just that instant rapport with kids. Then they want to tell you all about their dogs. It's just a common thread for everyone. He's a happy boy. He likes people,” Burgert says.

Burgert and Rion are accomplishing their certification training through Quad City Canine Assistance Network, where they train under the instruction of Angie Hall, the board president. They are also working through a personal trainer, Kim Lindquist. In order to become a certified therapy dog, there is much training and dedication involved. Rion must also be one year old before he can take the Canine Good Citizen Test, the first test he has to pass.

Handler Burgert says, “I think by the time he’s a year, we’ll be ready.”

They are hoping, after they attain certification, to visit sites around the Quad Cities and help where they can. Therapy dogs and their owners can volunteer in many different places once they have been certified.

Burgert says, “They visit St. Ambrose. They go to Augustana. They go to Blackhawk. They go to different schools, churches, libraries. They have reading dogs. They have dogs where they lay down and kids can lay on them and read to the dogs. They visit lots of different events and stuff. They visit the airport, hospitals, nursing homes. They go to a lot of places.”