Meet Butterscotch and Poppins: Reed City schools' therapy doodles

Owner: ‘They know their job and even dress for success’

NOTE: This is a story included in a series on Reed City Area Public Schools' therapy dogs and their owners. 

REED CITY — Two dogs who work in the school alongside therapy dogs Lucy and Toby are owned by a special education teacher at Reed City Middle School.

Butterscotch and Poppins, a female Labradoodle and male black goldendoodle respectively, can often be seen accompanying their owner, Paula Pettersen, in rotating shifts in the buildings. 

Pettersen said her work as a special education teacher is helped by the two dogs.  

“My classroom is a learning aid center for students needing more focus and helps with specific areas of study,” Pettersen said. “The dogs tend to be calming and cheer ambassadors. Some students get upset and have trouble verbalizing what is bothering them. They will pet or hug the dogs or even go over in a corner and talk to the dogs to calm down. Most of the time they are able to come back and explain why they were upset.

“Dogs are not judgmental and don’t spread gossip,” she added. “Studies have shown that children who struggle with reading have had increased reading scores and learn to enjoy reading when they are able to read to dogs. Dogs don’t care if a word is mispronounced or it takes the student a second to work out a word. The student doesn’t feel the peer pressure or embarrassment they might encounter reading in front of a class.”

Pettersen said there are three things make them good at their job: breed, training and temperament. 

Golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers are known for being highly intelligent, family-friendly, kid-friendly, loving, easily trainable and loyal. The poodle side of them means they have hair that constantly grows like a human. Most people that are allergic to dog fur are not so with poodle hair. However, with poodle hair they do have to go to the Spa frequently for a haircut.

“Training has been a huge part of my dogs’ lives,” Petterson said. “First they had to pass puppy obedience and adult dog obedience (level) one and two. They also took agility courses and rally training, or loose leash voice command. Then they took courses specifically for therapy dog training, which is intense schooling with a certified trainer through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs."

“During the training class we would go to public environments like Lowes and let them interact with the public to get used to some of the things and people they could encounter once on the job,” she added. “Therapy dogs are trained for the public. They need to be aware of their surroundings but not get over-excited. They learn not to be frightened and stay calm when they see and hear like loud noises, carts in stores, loudspeakers, wheelchairs, screams or crying of children, being touched or petted, and other unexpected sights and sounds. They are trained to look to their handler for their reaction in an unfamiliar situation.” 


Pettersen holds a master’s degree in special education curriculum and instruction, focusing on autism and therapy animals in classrooms, and looks for any resource to encourage and aid her students so they can achieve their own individual goals.

Pettersen said the dogs play a big part in achieving these goals. 

“If I was talking with a student and didn’t want the dog to interfere at that moment, I can give a hand command and they will step back and stay silent,” Petterson said. “RCAPS has about 10% of its student population that receive additional help from the Learning Aid Center. They help regulate students’ emotions, provide a non-judgmental face, and are great for lending a furry ear for listening. In between classes we walk the halls and encounter other students that need a little up-lifting. Smiles come out when they get to pet one of the dogs on their way to their next class."

“They love the students and honestly miss going to work when school is called off,” she added. “They know their job and even dress for success. Poppins wears ties and Butterscotch wears a bow on her head. Each has their own personality and students respond to them differently. Poppins is more chill and relaxed and some students react better with him. He has a school buddy named Frazzle that is a guinea pig in another classroom."

“Every morning he has to visit Frazzle and the students think it is hilarious,” she said. “Butters has a little more energy and is eager to greet and visit everyone. Children brighten up with smiles when Butters is there to be petted."

Poppins will celebrate his third birthday March 17, and Butterscotch will turn two Oct. 16. 

According to Pettersen, outside of working in the school, both dogs like to play with each other, being couch potatoes, walks, doggie ice cream, and their feline brother and sisters. Both also enjoy watching Animal Planet and Secrets of the Zoo series.

Superintendent Michael Sweet said all of the dogs have been good additions to the school’s environment.

“I think anytime you can build relationships and keep things on a calm level, that gives you the opportunity to be able to work in content,” Sweet said. “If you're escalated, you don't feel safe, you don't feel secure, you're not going to learn anything. If you have one student like that, that can be a disruptive piece for other students. So anytime we can do something that can present a more stable environment, a calming environment, a chance for people to relax and deescalate I think that that's positive. That can have an impact on student achievement.

“These dogs are all friendly, loving dogs, and they just present with love. They want to be recognized and they're not asking for anything other than that kind of recognition from a student or even a teacher that's in front of them. I just think that that's very non-threatening, it's comforting and it puts people at ease. They can provide that safe, welcoming environment and an animal can sometimes get through some of those sheltering walls that a human being just can't.”

Pettersen said she is always happy to see the difference the dogs make.

“A school is a stressful place regardless of a child’s academic achievements,” Pettersen said. “Therapy dogs are trained to take some of that stress away without reacting to the situation or surroundings. Dogs have a calming effect and give students time to calm down, smile, feel loved, and know they have a friend.”