Denise Willmore

2nd Grade Teacher

Davis School District

Bountiful, UT

Throughout the year we’ll be featuring stories from Hope Street Fellows in Utah. Thank you for sharing your story, Denise!


As a teacher, my job is so much more than attending to the academic needs of my students. School is a time of intense social and emotional growth and I am a steward of that learning as well. When it comes to my students, I will do whatever it takes to ensure that every child that enters my classroom is successful.  Contrary to popular belief, education is not one size fits all.  Every single child has varying strengths and areas to work on and it is vital to have that realization when teaching. Oftentimes, I cannot address the academic needs of a student until I have first helped support their social and emotional needs. Last year, I had a particularly unique experience.

A student in my colleague’s class was struggling with coming to school. Nicole’s family recently had some transitions at home with the passing of her grandfather and her mother starting a new job. This caused a tremendous amount of anxiety for Nicole, and despite what my colleague and other professionals implemented, she still resisted coming to school.

Eventually, Nicole was at home full time and attending classes via an online option.  As a third grade student, Nicole’s mother had to be home with her, which was putting Mom at risk of losing her newly acquired job. We needed to help transition Nicole back into attending school in the building 100% of the time. The administrator, the school psychologist, the counselor, and her parents had all implemented interventions to help reduce Nicole’s anxiety. Finally, the principal thought that a change of environment would assist in Nicole coming to school.

From at home & anxious to 100% attendance

In November, Nicole was moved to my classroom with the plan that she would attend two hours a day and then gradually increase her time.  A few days passed and Nicole was still resistant to coming into the classroom.  Just when it appeared that we have tried everything, we learned that Nicole liked dogs.  And that’s where Sadie comes in.

Sadie is not an ordinary dog. Three years ago, I trained her to be a licensed therapy dog. Sadie and I visit an area hospital and have observed many miracles when she visits with patients, families, and staff members. Sadie has an amazing ability to ease anxiety and make individuals feel calm and comfortable.

With my principal’s consent, the next day Sadie and I arrived at school eager to greet Nicole. For the first time in a number of months, Nicole was smiling and looked pleased to enter a classroom. It began with Nicole sitting in a chair with Sadie on her lap and then sitting at her desk with Sadie on an adjacent chair. Upon returning to school the next day without Sadie, Nicole refused to enter the classroom and eventually went home. It became apparent that the only solution to Nicole re-entering the classroom full time would be with the assistance of Sadie. Over the next few days, I went home during lunch to transport Sadie to school so she could spend the afternoon with Nicole and the rest of the class.

Initially, Nicole sat by herself with Sadie nearby to ease her anxiety.  

She said, “I just felt worried when my Mom left and Sadie made me feel better. I realized that my friends wanted me to be at school and Sadie made coming to school fun.”  

After a few weeks of Sadie’s daily visits, Nicole was attending class 100% of the time and was thriving.    

Sadie the school mascot

For the remainder of the school year, Sadie had a weekly appointment to visit with countless students throughout the school building. She listened to reluctant readers, helped relax students having social difficulties, and always provoked laughter and created a happy environment. The principal has come to think of Sadie as a sort of mascot. She explains, “I witnessed students respond to Sadie in ways that they did not to any other individuals. She has become a little mascot for our school because she has assisted many students.”

A classroom can be a demanding and challenging environment due to social challenges and academic demands. Therapy animals can reduce stress and be a shoulder for students to lean on. The motivation for bringing a therapy animal into school was to assist one child, but undoubtedly assisted numerous students.