Banker helps PBJHS add therapy dog for Life Skills class
Posted on 09/19/2023
Tufte greets students in between classes with handler Courtney Rutledge.

Poplar Bluff Junior High is the first R-I school to add a second certified therapy dog, this one designated to serve students with special needs, after a community partner led a successful fundraising effort.

Tufte, an English Labrador who turned 2 last month, was introduced this school year to handler Courtney Rutledge’s Life Skills class with help from banker Christy Frazier-Moore of the building’s Bright Futures Site Council.

“[Ms. Rutledge] has the job of molding young minds and helping them learn life skills,” Frazier-Moore stated. “I can’t think of a more perfect way to teach responsibility skills than adding a super dog life Tufte into their daily routines!”

In the spring, Frazier-Moore posted a video in her Chi and Company Facebook group soliciting donations to acquire the service animal. Chi and Company is a club Frazier-Moore started in 2017 in order to teach self-confidence and character lessons to female students at Junior High.

By the following week, the complete $4,000 was raised by friends, family and neighbors of Frazier-Moore. Donating businesses included Blaich Family Dentistry and Hillcrest Animal Hospital, along with the Three Rivers Citizens Advisory Board organization.

Rutledge had been on the waiting list since around December 2020 to purchase her dog from Cares, Inc., a canine assistance program based in Kansas. Over the summer, the educator received word that she was approved – and drove to Concordia with teaching assistant LaRonda Mack to participate in a weeklong training.

Through the nonprofit, incorporated in 1994, handlers are assigned a canine, based on the intended use, after learning commands and completing a public access test at a mall and restaurant. The dogs are trained by inmates of a nearby correctional facility. The board of directors named Tufte’s litter after notable firefighters.

Taking care of Tufte has been tied into the goals of Rutledge’s classroom. Students with functional disabilities walk the dog on a leash and clean up afterward, measure out his food – and if they score high enough on their behavior chart, earn the privilege of giving him a treat. During the transition between class periods, Life Skills students take Tufte into the hallway to engage with the rest of the student body.

“That’s been the most beneficial aspect—my kids getting socialization skills. Their non-disabled peers stop and talk to them. I can’t create that,” Rutledge stated. She further explained how Tufte has the ability to calm a student who is ramping up, or will sit beside an individual who may be nonverbal. “He just knows where to go,” Rutledge continued.

Mack, who did not grow up in a household with pets, and jokes how making a breakthrough with herself was Tufte’s “first job,” admitted that it is impressive watching him engage with students who need him most. “He works his tail off during second hour, almost the moment the kids come in,” Mack said.

A few years ago, Junior High counselor Jennifer Nicolini introduced Durango, a golden retriever, to the building to succeed the late Creggan, a beloved Irish setter. Junior High received approval for two therapy dogs, based on the size of the school and the specific need, according to Patty Robertson, assistant superintendent of curriculum. The district also has active therapy dogs at Eugene Field, Lake Road and O’Neal elementaries. Handlers are responsible for providing dog food, veterinarian services and liability insurance.


Cutline: Tufte greets students in between classes with handler Courtney Rutledge, special education teacher, on Wednesday, Sept. 13, at Junior High.

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