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25 March 2022
Rusty brings a special joy and comfort to children who need him the most.
Young labradoodle a popular addition to Wagga Salvos school program
Rusty to the rescue
Words Jessica Morris
When two-year-old labradoodle Rusty jaunts into the classroom, everything changes. The well-trained dog quickly gauges the mood of the room and makes a beeline for the child who may need him the most. Before long, children who frequently disengage from school sit quietly, reading to Rusty – and he is beside them, following along word for word without judgment.
Rural Community and Schools Worker Brigette Pritchett witnesses the ‘superpowers’ of Rusty three days a week when she takes the trained dog to five rural schools across south-west NSW. Together, they partner with schools and the wider community to tackle issues affecting young people through disadvantage, marginalisation, isolation, and lack of or gaps in services.
“Rusty is so intuitive,” Brigette says. “He can go into a classroom and every time he will sit with the kid who needs him the most. He breaks down barriers and some kids just come and hug him, and he lies on their lap. He’s changed my job completely.”
After years of work in the disability and education sector, Brigette knew that most kids needed physical touch and support to regulate their emotions – yet as a professional, she couldn’t offer this. That’s when she expanded her team. Brigette began the process of selecting and training Rusty in 2019. With additional support from the Dog Education Centre in Wodonga, Rusty was soon ready for school – and he was an immediate hit.
“I am an all-or-nothing person, so I talked to the Salvation Army officer (pastor) at the time and told them I had this idea for a trained dog to come and work with me,” explains Brigette, who was contracted to run the Schools and Community program for the Wagga Salvos six years ago. “We started by helping kids in juvenile detention, and then kids in schools. And eventually, the idea was I could develop programs around him – so we created Rusty’s Reading program. It’s not about teaching [kids] how to read, it’s about engaging them and giving them motivation.”
Like any student, Rusty’s school week is packed to the brim with subjects as he alternates between schools. On Monday, he participates in a reading program. “As the child points, he moves his head along and looks like he’s reading,” says Brigette.
On Tuesday, he takes part in another reading program across four grades. On Wednesday, he is involved in individual wellbeing catch-ups (pet therapy) with Brigette and helps kindergarten children settle first thing in the morning. Thursday is his full day off at home with a bone treat left for him, and on Friday, he helps his mum with the paperwork.
Brigette and Rusty also take part in a range of other programs with the Wagga Salvos – breakfast programs, Mini Chefs, developing social skills, team building and self-esteem. Sometimes the food they provide for the kids is their only meal that day. It truly is a holistic ministry, and Rusty is the perfect dog for the job.
“There is a child where, as soon as it comes to reading or spelling, we generally see behaviours to avoid doing the work,” says Brigette. “But as soon as I walk in the door with Rusty, he says, ‘Can I read to Rusty?’ And he will sit there and open five books, and then we will do a literacy exercise. This is exactly what Rusty is for.”
For Wagga Salvos officers (pastors) Aux-Lieutenants David and Valerie Hopewell, Brigette and Rusty’s work is a tangible expression of hope in their community. In fact, demand for the duo is so great they are on the lookout for more funding!
“The demand for Brigette’s programs has spread across the south-west area with schools on a wait list for her help,” says David. “Even without Rusty, she does an amazing job. God is working through Brigette.”
Brigette reads to a young student with Rusty’s assistance.