Photo by Jeannie Frey Rhodes.

Teacher’s pet: Rowdy the rescue dog at Mayfair Laboratory School

Stepping out of her mother’s car and onto the blacktop of the Mayfair Laboratory School parking lot, the path between the safety of her family’s SUV and the uncertainty beyond the door of the school’s office seemed the length of a football field to one young girl. The butterflies in her stomach began to collect as her mind explored the many ways the coming moments could end in catastrophe.

Having just made the move to Baton Rouge, and with her dad deployed overseas, her life had been turned upside down. New house, new friends, new everything. Now, she was charged with making a premature debut to the upcoming school year by spending a day of her summer break recalling math equations and demonstrating reading comprehension as part of a standardized test for admission to the magnet elementary.

“I have always loved dogs, but I’ve never connected with one in this way. He has opened my eyes.” Photo by Jeannie Frey Rhodes.

Making her way down the hallway, the stress of it all was quietly mounting. That is, until Rowdy heard her small footsteps. Rushing up to the baby gate that separates his and his mother Jessica Mitchell’s office from the main administrative room, the months-old Catahoula mix greeted the new student with mismatched eyes, a face full of spots, and a ferociously wagging tail.

“I immediately jumped up and asked if she liked dogs,” recalls Mitchell, the assistant principal of the school. “Her face lit up when she saw Rowdy. She ended up coming back to my office to see him at the test break and again after she finished. Her mom had to beg her to leave.”

Instances like this are common at Mayfair, an East Baton Rouge Parish magnet school established in 2013. Since his introduction to the school last summer, Rowdy has become an important part of the lives of students and teachers alike, attending recess, assemblies and the occasional classroom lesson. However, his path to the elementary school was an unlikely one.

Rowdy has become a recess staple, joining in on games and getting the kids involved in some of his own—for instance, chasing squirrels. He is pictured here with his human sister Addi (seated), as well as members of his Mayfair family (from left) Scarlett Masterson, Savannah Masterson and Maya McNeely. Photo by Jeannie Frey Rhodes.

Dropped off on the doorstep of the West Feliciana Animal Humane Society in a Rubbermaid tub with his litter mates, the 6-week-old Catahoula mix originally had an uncertain future. But when Mitchell came across an image of the blue-eyed puppy on social media, it was love at first sight.

“The moment I saw the post about Rowdy and his litter, I knew it was meant to be,” she gushes. “I had a Labrador named Rowdy growing up, and when I saw this puppy’s face, I knew I had to have him.”

While Mitchell had rescued several cats from the West Feliciana shelter over the years, she and her husband Josh had always found puppy love through Labrador retriever breeders. But something about this dog felt different.

“I filled out the application online and was thankfully the first person to do so,” Mitchell recalls, noting the tremendous number of likes and comments Rowdy’s photo accumulated online. “I have felt very lucky from the beginning.”

Since there is no “new dog” equivalent to maternity leave, in the days following Rowdy’s adoption, Mitchell says she couldn’t fight the urge to bring the puppy to work with her. After all, summer break was in full swing, so the school’s campus was largely empty, aside from select administrators and the occasional guest. Arriving at her office that first day, kennel in hand, Mitchell could never have predicted the future of the arrangement.

“When I started bringing him in with me, it was more just because puppies need a lot of attention, between going to the bathroom pretty frequently and bonding with their owner,” explains Mitchell. “But as people started coming in, I could tell how happy he was making them. People would see him and just melt.”

When he isn’t tending to business, Rowdy spends his time gazing out on the school’s play yard, looking for squirrels. Photo by Jeannie Frey Rhodes.

Inspired by the positivity that seemed to characterize each interaction with Rowdy, Mitchell went to her principal with the idea of adding a new—slightly furrier—faculty member.

In his role at Mayfair, Rowdy now takes on the title of “therapy dog in training.” Evaluated based on temperament and behavior toward people, therapy dogs are vastly different from service dogs, who are trained extensively to perform specific tasks for their owners only. While therapy dogs might know a few key commands like “sit” and “stay,” their main job is to offer comfort, support and companionship to a broad range of people. In school settings, administrators across the country are increasingly taking notice of the benefits both academically and socially—from increased attendance to higher test scores to boosts in overall mood—of the inclusion of simple things like puppy kisses and belly rubs throughout the school day.

It’s not all fun and games, though—despite Rowdy’s frequent appearances at recess and PE. The energetic 1-year-old sits in on disciplinary meetings, lends an ear to learning readers, and acts as an incentive for children struggling with behavioral issues.

“Following the rules or behaving can be awkward for some kids,” says Mitchell, who notes that students can earn the opportunity to spend time with Rowdy through positive notes called PAWS Points. “They want to see Rowdy so badly, though, that it takes some of that awkwardness away. When they come in to see him, they receive nothing but love, happiness and comfort.”

For Mitchell, even Rowdy’s appearance offers a way to connect with students by teaching valuable lessons about confidence and caring for one another.

“We talk about how unique he is, with his different colored eyes and coat,” she explains. “We talk about how the differences we have are what makes us special, and that it’s cool to be different and to love the differences of others.”

This past school year, Rowdy got the chance to meet Governor John Bel Edwards and his wife Donna Edwards as they made their rounds to local schools for breakfast. Rowdy’s human father Josh (far left) is a state trooper who also gets to work with a dog daily, as his partner is a K9 handler.

Rowdy’s work doesn’t stop with the students. Always on hand to meet with faculty members—especially his “adoptive grandmother,” custodian Leah Chase—as well as visiting parents or other guests, Mitchell says that Rowdy’s ability to break down walls is uncanny.

“I handle 99% of discipline and parent issues, which means people are often coming into my office for not the happiest reasons,” Mitchell explains. “But the second they see Rowdy, faces light up and the conversation immediately turns to, ‘Oh, wow, you have a dog,’ and ‘Let me tell you about my dog.’ Rowdy has really touched all the members of our school community.”

In the coming school year, Mitchell plans to give Rowdy even more time with her students, especially during periods like PE when he can show his full personality off the leash. But don’t worry—each of Rowdy’s milestones at Mayfair is met with extreme caution and courtesy from Mitchell.

“When I decided I wanted to try this, I set out rules, like that he can’t be anywhere with food, and I’m sure to be respectful with everyone and their space,” she says. “I let the kids—and the adults, also—approach Rowdy on their own time.”

The past year has seen individuals old and young conquer their fear of dogs, with a community transformed around a mutual love for one animal and the love he has for them. With a new year comes new challenges, but whatever the perceived risks, Mitchell is sure that the positives far outweigh any negatives.

“This has been the most exciting and innovative thing of my career,” she says, noting that she encourages other schools to follow Mayfair’s lead. “I’m passionate about the human side of my job. I want to let these kids know that they’re loved. I think that’s the biggest thing Rowdy gives us—unconditional love.”

The winner of inRegister’s “Dog Days of Summer” contest, Rowdy has a human sister named Addi, a dog brother named Trooper, and four cat siblings. He loves to play in the water hose, and he has even gotten a belly rub from Governor John Bel Edwards.