Coco, Roosevelt School Dog

Coco head shot They say that all dogs go to heaven. If so, Coco is already living that dream at Roosevelt Elementary School, where she fills the essential role of “School Dog.” 

Coco is a deep brown Chesapoo (Chesapeake-poodle mix) whose job is to greet, support and comfort kids and staff, all while offering unconditional love and acceptance. It’s definitely a dog’s life.

Coco’s handler, Principal Shawn Tegethoff, hatched the idea of a school dog four years ago in the midst of a community mental health crisis.

“I wanted the kids to know that we love them and we value them as human beings,” she said. “They need to know they are relevant and if there is anything they are going through, we will help them. We’re in it together. I wanted them to not be afraid to talk to us.”

She first considered a true “therapy” dog for the school, but soon realized that what she was looking for was more unique. She knew the dog would still need a lot of specialized training, so she turned to both the breeder (who also taught PE at the school at the time) and the Nampa Police Department, which has a lot of experience training dogs to stay focused in public settings.

But no amount of training could substitute for the natural empathy both Coco and her co-school dog Moses (a Cavalier King Charles spaniel-poodle mix, a Cavapoo) exhibit around the children.  

Principal Shawn Tegethoff, Coco and children pose for a group shot.“It’s important for a child to learn to self-regulate so they are happy,” Shawn said, noting that connecting with the dogs give kids an emotional landing place when life hits hard. And at some point, life will hit hard for everyone.

“They need a way to regulate and get back to a state of contentment.”

Even the kids recognize this. Shawn recounted a conversation with a young boy who had gotten into some trouble. “He looked at me and said this conversation would have gone better if I’d brought the dog. I thanked him for the feedback and said next time I would. And I have every time. For crucial conversations, I always bring the dog.”

Coco’s residency has led to some unexpected successes as well. Because she was named by the students after the animated movie “Coco,” many of Roosevelt’s Hispanic students relate to the name. Some have family members who share that name, others like talking about the food and celebrations they have in common with the family in the movie.  

“They never talked to me about their heritage and culture before,” Shawn said. “I didn’t know it was a missing component. 

In addition, she has noticed that parents find her more approachable, and the kids see her more as a person rather than just a disciplinarian.

“And I have had parents thank me for having dogs at school, not just for emotional support but for the safety of the environment. Dogs will bark if someone looks aggressive. We like that.”

But the best part about having Coco at school is that the kids know that she loves them – no matter what. “If they are late for school, struggling with reading, or don’t love math – she still loves you and sees you as the best person in the world, no matter what!”

A Conversation with Coco (with interpretation by Shawn Tegethoff)

What does a “Day in the Life” look like for you? When I get to school, we start by playing ball so that I can get some of my energy out. I greet staff as they arrive, then move to the back hall to greet the kids. Sometimes they’ll play with me, kicking the ball down the hallway. I’ll go out to check the bus area, and if there is anyone who is new, I’ll let Shawn know by bopping her on the knee. It takes me about two weeks to learn the scent of all the kids here, so I always know if someone new is around. I wait in the office during announcements, then greet kids who come late, letting them know I’m glad they’re here, even if they are late.

I like going to classrooms to give prizes to kids who’ve earned them or hanging out in the office so I can calm down children who come to the office upset or crying. I’ll let them pet me or play ball with me. Shawn recorded data for a long time that showed that doing this helped calm kids almost 100 percent of the time when they chose to participate. I like being part of that.

When it’s time for everyone to go home, I see them off to the bus. I think I help them feel like school is an extension of home. I think it’s an extension of my home. 

What motivates you to go to school every day? I love playing with the children and I can’t wait to see them every day. When we had to close during COVID, I got really depressed and spent three weeks just lying on my bed. Shawn brought me back to school even though it was closed and shot some video of me running around and shared it with the kids. But it was really confusing for me with no kids here. I sniffed at every doorway but couldn’t find anyone here. I still feel the same way when Shawn is sick and we can’t come to school, or during summer vacations. School is the best! 

What is your favorite part of the day? Lunchtime, because the kids are all outside and I have lots of people to play with. They throw the ball and I chase it. They also give me treats for doing tricks. And I love seeing Kristy Richmond every day. She delivers our inter-district mail and always throws me a treat. 

What don’t you like to do? I don’t like meetings in a room full of adults, and I especially don’t like when adults stop talking and read. It makes me very nervous to be that quiet. I also don’t like the guy who sets off the alarms in the summer. When I see him drive into the parking lot to test them, I get scared and climb into Shawn’s lap.  

Are you a good listener? Is that important? Kids talk to me and I am a good listener. I promise to never repeat what they say, but if they need help, I will poke Shawn with my nose. I know that if they are sad or make any sudden movements or scream, they need help. I’m really interested in the kids who have seizures or are autistic and try to be more careful around them. And if kids are afraid or anxious, I’ll get down on all fours and look at them so Shawn knows.  

What kind of fan mail do you receive? I get a lot of fan mail filled with questions. I try to write back to as many as I can. It’s stacks of mail. I have had some regular pen pals – kids who keep writing. We have unique conversations about our weekends and what we do outside of school. 

What have you learned from the kids? What have they learned from you? I have learned how to respond to a variety of different needs that kids have. I think kids have learned they can relax here at school. It’s a fun environment for them and they can feel at home here on campus. And I’ve helped some of them get over their fear of dogs.

If you had a superpower, what would it be? To beam all of the apple cores in the school to me. Apple cores are my favorite treat, and I know they aren’t all coming to me because I’m not allowed in the cafeteria. Apple day is really hard. I’ll “leave them” when I’m told to, but I don’t like it!

What’s something surprising about you that most people don’t know? I like a particular commercial that has dogs in it. It has a squeaky toy at the beginning. Even when I put my face right on the TV screen or look behind the TV, I can’t ever find the dog or the toy. I also like watching the National Dog Show that airs every year after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Why is a therapy dog better than a therapy cat? Dogs are faster at chasing the ball. We’re also better at interacting with kids. People will stop and talk about things at a deeper level when I’m around. They open up faster and go deeper than before Moses and I were here. And we’re both hypoallergenic, which is important. Cats aren’t.