Damian Jones’s job interview at the District’s Edmund Burke School went pretty well — he got the offer and started as headmaster in 2014. But one thing threw him: the little dog he saw panting affably at him from one of the classrooms.
“That was a bit of a shock,” said Jones, who had come from a long career in Chicago private schools that had been entirely dog-free. Everybody knows, no dogs in school.
But hey, what’s one little pooch? Then on his first day, a big, shaggy Labradoodle galumphed down the corridor on a leash. A tiny Chihuahua mix skittered out the back door on an urgent errand. There was a playful bark from the IT office and a deeper one from the physics room.
Jones called a meeting. This had to stop. Right?
It was news to Jones, but it turns out that Burke is just one of several independent schools in the canine-crazy Washington region that are dogs-allowed zones, with administrators and teachers regularly bringing their pets to frisk with the kids. Not service dogs or therapy dogs. Just dogs.
“He particularly likes the conference room, there’s always food in there,” Nancy Mellon, head of the River School, on MacArthur Boulevard, said of Tuck, the Norwich terrier who naps under her desk when he’s not sniffing out contraband snacks. “He definitely loses weight during the summer.”
At Beauvoir, the art teacher’s little white dog is a common sight around the exclusive girls’ school attached to Washington National Cathedral. When Dick Jung ran the Bullis School in Potomac, Md., his black lab, Lassie, attended almost every meeting.
“If I had to do anything tough, like when a kid knew he was going to be suspended, Lassie would invariably pick up on the emotion. It was, Come over, put head on lap and let the soothing begin. It was very helpful.”
To the pet lovers who take their animals to school, all dogs are therapy dogs. (And cats? Cats are for bookstores. And YouTube.)
“The great thing about a dog is they just express affection, and that may be in short supply with a lot of these kids,” said Jeff Sindler, who has taken a dog to school daily for more than 20 years. Now, it’s Luke, an 80-pound chocolate lab who romps around the grounds of Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Alexandria, where Sindler is head of school.
Before Luke, it was Cameron, a terrier rescue who was the four-legged toast of Saint Ignatius Loyola Academy in a hardscrabble part of Baltimore. There, many of the neighborhood dogs snarled at a chain’s end, and Sindler counted on Cameron to present a friendlier furry visage.
“Some of the kids who had the biggest personal struggle would form the strongest connection to the dog,” Sindler said.
Public school systems in Fairfax and Montgomery counties in Maryland confirmed that non-service dogs are not allowed inside their buildings. Brian Edwards, a spokesman for Montgomery County public schools, cited county regulations that allow animals only on the grounds outside and only leashed, and on the condition that pet owners “immediately” scoop any resulting poop.
“The safety of our students is our first priority, so we have to guard against the possibility of dog bites, student allergies and the like,” Edwards said.
Jung, now executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington, said his group has never surveyed its member schools to see how many allow dogs to pad along the hallowed halls. But he knows they are in there, sniffing the classes’ hamster cages, waiting for the midday outing, snoozing through math.
“I have to put her in her crate when we do the projectile motion lab; [she] goes crazy trying to catch the balls,” said Kelly Phillips, Burke’s physics teacher and owner of Scarlet, a bouncy mixed-breed terrier who comes to school several days a week.
During a recent lesson on the Doppler effect, Scarlet slalomed among the legs of students who variously patted her passing head or ignored her. None seemed unnerved by a dog with more than a little pit bull in her genes.
“Every now and then, you can see a student who’s a little hesitant,” Phillips said. “I tell them on the first day of class, if anyone is scared of dogs, I’ll leave [Scarlet] home on those days.”
That some people are scared of dogs was the first thing Jones thought when he discovered his new school was rife with them, along with “some people are allergic to them” and “some people bring lawsuits about such things.” The meeting he called was to declare Burke a no-dog zone.
But the dog owners beseeched him to think again. The kids love the dogs, they argued, and research showed the emotional benefits of animals in work settings. Google, they pointed out, allows dogs at the office. It all gave him paws, er, pause.
“They made good arguments,” Jones said. “I agreed to see what other schools in the area do,” Jones said.
What he saw: more dogs. At the Burgundy School, Luke padded along when headmaster Sindler took Jones around campus. The art teacher’s little white dog buzzed by at Beauvoir. His daughter reported a puppy sighting at her own school.
Jones asked school lawyers whether there was any liability. “Of course, what you get is a yes and a no,” he said. So he and the faculty agreed that the dogs could stay if they followed a clear set of guidelines: No free-range dogs; no dogs near students with phobias or allergies; signs on any classroom where a dog hangs out; all shots up to date and documented.
Now, three or four dogs make their way through the Burke halls each morning. Bodhi, a black Lab, chews toys in David Panush’s IT office. Jackie, a “snickerdoodle” (or a hybrid of a schnauzer and a poodle), continues to tune out hours of band practice in John Howard’s music room. Lenny, a nine-pound Chihuahua mix, snoozes on a bed in Susan Hearn’s seventh-grade English class, making constant cameos in sample sentences.
“He’s really big when we’re on prepositions,” Hearn said. “‘Lenny is on the chair; Lenny is under the table.’ ”
Lenny stepped up in a different way this month when a Burke senior, 16-year-old Abby Shapiro, died of cancer. On the day of the funeral, some of her friends came by to take Lenny with them on a walk. “I think he just makes them feel better,” Hearn said.
“He’s a lot better than a fish or gerbil, that’s for sure,” said Kalea George-Phillips, 12, during a break from learning the parts of speech.
Behind her, Lenny raised his head, wagged once. Then he went back to sleep.