Meet Cricket: Pelham City Schools’s new facility dog

Published 4:48 pm Monday, June 6, 2022

By MICHELLE LOVE | Staff Writer 

PELHAM – Pelham Oaks second grader Teddy Ivy has a soft spot for Cricket, the new facility dog for Pelham City Schools. When Cricket made a special visit to Teddy’s class, he decided he had a new best friend.

“I love Cricket because she’s a really nice dog,” Teddy said. “She’s funny, and she’s really cute. I like the color of her fur, and I’m glad that she can save people. I’m glad she came to our classroom.”

Teddy is not the only student who has fallen in love with the Labrador retriever. Since she began working for PCS, she has quickly stolen the hearts of all students and staff who encounter her.

Though she loves the attention, one of her handlers, Anna Nicholson, says when Cricket is working (her hours are from 8 a.m. until noon), she is a dog on a mission, and that mission is to give a positive boost to everyone’s mental health.

“Her hours are from 8 a.m. to noon, so in that time she is just so focused, but after 12 she’s like, ‘I’m done,’” she said laughing.

Nicholson is the mental health coordinator for PCS and one of Cricket’s handlers, and she said the journey in getting Cricket has been three years in the making.

Pelham City Schools received a grant for Cricket through the State Department of Education after filling out an application with Service Dogs of Alabama and going through a rigorous screening process. They originally applied three years ago, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, everything was put on hold. The stars eventually aligned, and Cricket came into the picture.

The 3-year-old lab was chosen for her calm and relaxed demeanor. During class visits, she lays on the floor and allows students to come pet her all while maintaining a relaxed, and sometimes sleepy, disposition.

Cricket is defined as a facility dog as opposed to a service dog because Cricket helps multiple individuals while a service dog serves just one person. Nicholson said that she will make regular visits to different classrooms at various PCS schools and also aid in one-on-one visits. Cricket’s whole purpose, said Nicholson, is to create a calming environment for all around her.

“She is able to come into a classroom, and everybody’s spirits lift and they become happier, and it really helps everyone focus,” she said. “She just goes in there, sits down and lays down, and everyone is so much calmer and happier.”

When Nicholson says everyone, she means everyone.

“She’s for the students, and she’s going to do a great job with the students, but even with the teachers you can see the difference in people once they see her walking down the halls,” she said. “She’s for everybody.”

Cricket will also be working during the summer at local summer camps and in the extended school year classes. These past couple of visits to Pelham Oaks and Pelham High School have been Cricket’s practice runs with the schools, but next year Cricket will go to all PCS schools.

Her calming impact is universal and helps all sorts of stresses that students may be encountering, according to Nicholson.

“It works so well because, you know, we know what her job is, but the students don’t always know what her true purpose is,” she said. “Her true purpose is to come in and have that calming effect, but some of the students don’t know that. So, you go into a classroom with Cricket, and there could be a kid who has a really rough home life or they’ve had a really bad day, and they see Cricket and just immediately smile and it makes their whole day.”

Nicholson said Cricket does a lot of work behind the scenes that some people may not realize, like helping students who may have social anxiety.

“Like, if we have a child that is struggling with reading and they don’t want to read out loud to anyone, they’ll happily read to Cricket,” she said. “Also, if I’m talking with a student who is having something going on at home and they don’t want to talk about it with me, I’ll say, ‘Well, what if you told Cricket?’ and they’ll absolutely tell Cricket.”

Nicole Knight, PCS’s communications manager, said Cricket also serves as a teaching tool for helping students learn how to share and respect living things.

“When Cricket comes in, the kids are sharing her and respecting her and respecting each other’s time and boundaries,” Knight said. “To me, it’s this subtle teaching that they’re learning so many things about life in general just by having Cricket as a resource. It’s just really cool to see how much the kids love her.”

Nicholson said she has yet to encounter a negative response to Cricket and she hopes it will help open the doors often closed to the topic of mental health and mental health awareness.

“Mental health will always be around and always be an issue, but if we can talk about it and continue to get rid of that stigma so we can get these children the help they need, that’s a start,” she said.