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Unconditional Love: Tilly offers support, produces smiles at Gilbert Elementary

Loving. Understanding. Forgiving. Loyal. Comforting.

Truly, a child’s best friend at the moment when he or she needs unconditional love the most.

That’s Tilly, arguably the most popular attraction at Gilbert Elementary.

Tipping the scales at a svelte 118 pounds, the 3-year-old Greater Swiss Mountain Dog has called Gilbert Elementary her home since she was just 12 weeks old. The mostly black and white with wisps of chestnut bundle of joy introduced herself to the students at around 25 pounds, but has since more than quadrupled in size.

“Tilly is an important part of our building,” Gilbert Elementary Principal Staci Edwards said. “You can see the kiddos who just light up when they see her. When I give tours to new families and sometimes when Tilly isn’t here I say, ‘Hey, we have a dog and it lives in this room,’ and you just know that is something that’s special to the elementary. It makes the kiddos feel like it’s a special place to be.”

Resource teacher Kendra Braucher was the mastermind behind bringing Tilly into the Gilbert district, and Tilly is a member of Braucher’s family outside of school hours. Tilly accompanies Braucher to school and stays in Braucher’s classroom throughout the day.

“She’s a very loving dog and she fits the breed well,” Braucher said as Tilly, who was the junior division obedience champion at the Story County Fair over the summer, sat by her side in her classroom last week. “She wants to be by people because she loves attention. Anybody that will give her scratches and pets, she’s all over them.”

Mornings are a unique time around the elementary building. As kids sit in the hall waiting for classes to begin, Braucher and an excited Tilly will make their rounds. And in an instant, grins appear and spirits are lifted as the kids get a chance to pet and play with Tilly before they head off to a day of learning.

Braucher jokes that Tilly may have an ulterior motive for the morning routine.

“We joke she’s checking out what (the kids) have for a snack,” Braucher said. “She just walks by and sniffs everybody, but it’s starting the day off on a happy note.”

Tilly spends the majority of her school day either sitting in front of the window in Braucher’s room so she won’t miss anything going on in the halls, or napping in her favorite pink bean bag that she outgrew long ago. But when she’s needed to help put a sparkle in the eyes of a child or simply just to listen, she’s ready.

“We have some kids who don’t like to read aloud, so Tilly will sit and read with the kids,” Braucher said. “They’ll read out loud to her and she can listen to help them feel more comfortable.

“Sometimes we have kids who are just feeling sad on a day, so they might go lay on the trampoline with (Tilly) and just snuggle. Dogs can change the attitudes of kids almost immediately.”

That’s evident when Braucher looks at Tilly a few moments later and asks, “Do you want to go to Joni’s room?”

Tilly is immediately on her feet and at the door. The second Braucher opens the door, there goes Tilly, bounding down the hall, around a corner, and right into Joni Tickle’s kindergarten classroom, much to the delight of the students. There are squeals, a lot of laughs and, yes, a lot of hugs during Tilly’s five-minute trip to the room.

“She works mostly with students who have social and emotional needs,” Braucher said. “However, she’s available to anybody in the building who needs her.”

Edwards doesn’t know how many schools have emotional support animals for their students, but she’s ecstatic that Tilly is available in her building.

“I definitely think it makes us unique in the area at least,” Edwards said. “Whether our kiddos are nonverbal or struggling with their emotions, it’s a safe place to get a hug and get support, which is ultimately the purpose of having her here.”