Special-ed students mourn loss of canine classmate
Abby, a golden retriever who for 12 years was both companion and calming presence for dozens of Shoreline students, is being remembered by students and faculty at three different schools.
Times Snohomish County Reporter
Abby wasn't a trained, certified therapy dog. But her owner, special-education teacher Therese Russell, had a hunch the golden retriever would add a calming presence to her classroom in the Shoreline School District.
For 12 years, Abby went to school with Russell, wore her own district I.D. badge, went down the slide at recess with her classmates and walked them to their buses in the afternoon.
Abby, who died Oct. 10 of cancer, is being remembered by the teachers who sneaked her treats, the administrators who protected her from the district's no-animal policy and the families whose children she comforted and entertained.
"She could be calm when she needed to be. She could be jovial when someone needed a pickup. There was something almost human in the way she could assess a situation," said Tamara Tikalsky, a parent at Brookside Elementary School in Lake Forest Park, the last of three Shoreline elementary schools where Abby and Russell worked.
Russell's fifth- and sixth-grade classroom includes children with autism, Asperger's syndrome and emotional and behavioral issues. If a student was upset, Abby would go to his or her side, Russell said.
Reluctant readers could stretch out beside her with a book and the dog would listen. She never fell asleep or wandered off.
Russell's students have their own favorite memories. Abby's birthday each year involved presents the dog would open herself, often a crown, and cake and ice cream that she shared with the class.
One Halloween she wore a pumpkin costume. On another she was Super Dog.
Field Day, on the last day of school, was another highlight. Abby ran with the girls in the 50- and 100-yard dashes. She carried a baton in the relay race and pulled doggedly in tug of war.
Breanna Garlock, 11, said the whole class chanted, "Aa — bby, Aa-bby, Aa-bby!" as the dog flew down the field.
Russell also noticed that her students, who were sometimes unfairly stigmatized for being in her classroom, now had a source of pride. Other students told them, "I wish I were in your room. You have a dog."
Four years ago, the Shoreline School District instituted a no-pet policy. No gerbils, guinea pigs, fish or hamsters. Certainly, no dogs. Peter Hodges, the principal at Lake Forest Park Elementary, where Abby and Russell worked at the time, argued to the superintendent that Abby worked with special students and made a difference in their lives. The head of special education said Abby was an essential part of the program.
Abby got to stay at school.
In Russell's collection of class pictures, the dog is sitting between her and her students, in the front row.
When school started this fall, Abby was at the classroom door, greeting new kids and smiling at them. But within a few weeks, Russell noticed that the 14-year-old dog was losing weight.
"She was a round girl because of all the treats she got, and suddenly she wasn't eating."
Her veterinarian biopsied a lump on her neck and diagnosed lymphoma.
On the Wednesday before she died, Abby came to school, but she didn't walk the kids out to their buses. She slept most of the day, but she did lift her head up when the children petted her, as if to say, 'I'm so glad you came over,' " Tikalsky said.
Two days later she hid in the back corner of her yard at home. Russell and her husband had her put down that night.
Last week, students made bookmarks featuring photos of Abby and distributed them to all the schools where she worked. They wrote notes and tied them to red helium balloons.
Vince Villaruz, 11, who used to be afraid of dogs, wrote "I will miss you."
Matt Gruenewald, 11, drew a heart and in it wrote, "Abby + Mrs. Russell."
The class released the balloons on the playground.
"I want people to know that there was a dog named Abby and she did great things," Russell said.
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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