BELFAST, Maine — Teaka sat in the middle of a circle of adoring children last Friday and listened as they talked about how much they love reading dog books to her and snuggling with her.
Then the little white therapy dog padded to a different, quieter part of the Capt. Albert Stevens Elementary School classroom and laid down for a nap. The almost 15-year-old mixed breed has spent 14 years working in classrooms helping children. She is deaf, partially blind and sleeps a lot. It’s time to retire, said her owner, teacher Page Dilts.
“This year she only came in a couple days a week,” Dilts said. “She loves to come to school, but she’s tired.”
“She’ll miss us most of all,” said 9-year-old Maddie, one of her fourth-grade students and a big fan of Teaka’s.
“She’ll miss you terribly,” Dilts agreed.
Maddie and her classmates at the kindergarten through fifth grade elementary school will miss Teaka’s visits and her calming, furry presence. They told her so during an all-school assembly Friday afternoon during which 300 children sang to her, presented her with cards and letters and donated pounds of pet food in her honor to the P.A.W.S. Animal Adoption Shelter in Rockport.
Dilts found Teaka, which she said means “dog” in Navaho, in a kill shelter in the southwest.
Dilts took her new puppy home to Maine and completed an extensive training course to get her licensed through Therapy Dogs International, a nonprofit group that provides canines for visits to institutions.
Over the years she has accompanied Dilts to school, Teaka has helped children with their reading and much more. The speech therapist has her pupils practice on Teaka. And when students are sad, struggling with a parental divorce, the loss of an animal or other traumas, Teaka is there for them.
Cynthia Martell, the school’s guidance counselor, said that the dog is a “huge help.”
“Teaka can be a real calming force,” she said. “Petting the dog can help them get centered. We pet her while we talk about what’s going on. Dogs are good listeners.”
At times when children were anxious about school, Teaka came to the rescue, Martell said.
“Teaka would meet them at the front door of the building — it made it less scary,” she said.
A few doors down from Dilts’ classroom, past walls decorated with colorful reports on animals and American Indians, Joey — a second grader wearing overalls — was hard at work on the computer. He was writing a goodbye letter to the dog.
“Oh Teaka I love you down to my heart and soul,” he wrote. “You are the best dog in school. I hope you have a good summer.”
Emily Savage, his teacher, said that her students often write letters to Teaka. They drop them in a special mailbox for delivery. And for the all-school assembly, her students drew on pieces of paper that spelled “We love you Teaka.” Some featured paw prints.
“I just see a really good connection with the kids,” Savage said.
Teaka’s years as a therapy dog at the elementary school were not without controversy. Back in 2004, all animals were banned from the former SAD 34 schools after a dog at another elementary school nipped a child, according to BDN reports.
After protests from students and parents, who missed her, Teaka was allowed back to school where she has befriended many of the district’s children over the years.
All the students in Dilts’ classroom last week agreed: they were losing more than a dog.
“She never judges you when you read to her,” said 9-year-old McKayla. “That’s the fun part.”