Meet Toby: Reed City’s golden therapy dog

‘He lives to work with kids’

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

REED CITY – With the latest addition of Lucy the pitbull to the therapy dog team at Reed City Area Public Schools, it pays to know who was among the first of the pack.

Lucy has been a positive addition to the therapy dog team at RCAPS, but she certainly wasn’t the first dog sniffing around the district. 

Toby, a golden retriever, was one of the first therapy dogs introduced in the district. Toby works district-wide with students and staff, providing help and comfort wherever it's needed. 

Dave Zielinski, who formerly worked at Reed City as a science teacher and owns Toby, said he’s well versed in therapy dog work. 

“This (Toby’s) third year,” Zielinski said. “I taught at the school for 25 years, and for the last two years. I brought him the first year a little bit once he turned one, just a little bit here and there like once or twice a week. Last year when the pandemic hit, the administration in my building asked me to bring him every day. He is very social, outgoing, he lives to work with kids, he loves it. He doesn't meet anybody that he doesn't try to make his friend."

Zielinski said Toby enjoys the busy environment. 

“I think any school is a good environment for (therapy dogs),” Zielinski said. “We're pretty unique in that our superintendent is embracing us with open arms. We obviously have been doing it for a few years, we just haven't really advertised it that much. So I think the trust that he and the other administrators had, even though it's kind of unknown, sometimes you know how an animal's going to respond to those environments."

“Toby has become a part of the culture,” he added. “No joke, if I walk in with my background in the school and everybody knew me and I grew up here, nobody knows who I am anymore, and that's with just being a year retired. But everybody knows who Toby is. I walk into the elementary, high school, the middle school, and everyone knows him. It's kind of like walking into cheers.”

Counselor Amy Decker said she has been impressed with the impact Toby makes on students. 

“We use him a lot with our kids that are struggling, you know, especially with the pandemic and everything,” Decker said. “(Toby) works with a lot of the emotional well-being, and the mental health wellbeing. Toby is exceptional, I don't know if Dave told you that or not, because people don't typically like to sound like they're bragging about their dog. We do two things, they will do walk-throughs with Toby and he’ll do identifications."

“He will identify kiddos who are struggling and just provides support,” she added. “The other thing Dave does is he’ll pull kids (for time with Toby). We have kids that we know struggle, whether it's with home issues or things, whatever might be going on in that day, or just in a general sense in life. Dave will pull those kids in, he and Toby will walk with them. Toby just provides a ton of emotional support helps mental health-wise, and helps to calm kids down. It just really helps the students’ staffs’ wellbeing, and the kids really look forward to it.”

Decker said from her perspective as a school counselor she has noticed how the kids will really open up to Toby.

“They will talk to Toby and they will tell him what's going on,” Decker said. “Share thoughts and feelings that, especially as adults in the building, we may never have heard them express. So he does that and then he does also work at the elementary, and the high school. And the days that he's there doing walk-throughs. He has certain students that he walks with because it really acts as a calming, settling (presence) for the kids. He really is exceptional when you're watching him, in comparison to the other dogs that I've been around.” 

Toby’s ability to help adult staff members is also notable to Decker. Toby can help with some of the emotional overloads that staff members face.

 “We’re all human, and our staff has stuff going on in their own lives outside of school that they keep suppressed because they're there to do their job,” Decker said. “But they're feeling stressed and certainly in with a pandemic, and the stressors that have been placed on school, he's been a great support."

"We as adults recognize that he's seeking us out because we're stressed and we kind of joke about it, but I think it helps us put it into perspective that we might not realize it, but you know, we're wearing it. If nobody else can tell, Toby can tell you no he will come in and come right at you. If he thinks you're stressed, he won't leave it. He helps he helps everybody.”

According to Reed City Middle School Principal Dave Carlson, the school’s discipline referrals are 15-20% less on the days the dogs make contact with kids.

Carlson explained that the dogs make an incredible contribution to the learning environment. 

 “These animals help students calm down and regulate themselves in ways that another person cannot,” Carlson said. “These sessions allow kids the opportunity to de-escalate their behavior. Often, kids don't realize that they are on edge because they don't understand themselves well enough. Toby can give us an indication that a student is agitated or struggling emotionally by the way he reacts to them. We have seen some tangible results by having therapy dogs in the building."

“The adults in the building appreciate having them around too,” he added. “Most people enjoy taking a moment to connect with a friendly animal. It engages them with something positive and helps them live in the moment, even if it's a brief moment. We are truly thankful to have therapy dogs at Reed City middle school.”