TOWNSEND -- Preschoolers at the Squannacook Early Childhood Center received a surprise visitor on Thursday, Nov. 8. Jake the therapy dog, as he is affectionately known, made the rounds in each classroom with owner Kim Cormier of Townsend, much to the wide-eyed awe of the young students.

While many children approached Jake to pet him with eagerness, others were more wary, not sure what to make of the pooch who sat taller than they did. But Jake took it all in stride, accepting the grazes to his head with affectionate nuzzles as Cormier told the classes about the six-year-old border collie mix and instructed on animal safety.

"Most dogs don't bite," she said. "But even the friendliest dog in the world, if he's scared, could bite. So never touch a dog you don't know."

Cormier had approached the school about bringing in Jake, who is certified through Therapy Dogs International, to introduce to the class and talk about dog safety.

"We go to dog parks and it's amazing how many people don't really know good behavior around dogs. I've actually had adults come up to our dogs and they'll wrestle with them, and I'm just like, 'What are you doing? You don't even know this dog,'" she said. "So many dogs end up in shelters with behavior problems, but it's just because owners don't really know how to deal with them. How you approach a dog and how you behave around a dog helps kids become safer, first of all, but then the dog will probably behave better if the are kids behaving better.


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Then you can keep the dog home as opposed to him going to a shelter."

School Principal Anne Cromwell-Gapp said she was pleased with the event and its consistency with the opportunities the school tries to regularly provide for its students.

"What we do for the kids is expose them to opportunities that they might not otherwise have the chance to have," she said. "Some kids wanted to be with the dog, some kids didn't want to be with dog and that was fine. We don't push anybody."

Cromwell-Gapp credited Sharon Whittier, teaching assistant at the school, for organizing and facilitating several of the school's enrichment programs, including bringing in Jake.

"Once a month we try to do something special," Whittier said. In an effort to remain economical, said Whittier, the school tries to utilize the help of community members for activities, which include a fire safety event hosted by the Fire Department, a walk to the library a few hundred meters away and an annual apple-picking field trip.

"We are blessed to have great support from the community," said Whittier.

The school also applies for Cultural Council grants and receives the majority of their assistance from their PTO.

"We have a very, very generous PTO, but it's very small PTO since we only have about 100 students or so," said Whittier. "We're trying to increase public awareness. We have a very unique program and we just want to get the word out."

The major thing that sets the school apart from other programs, said Cromwell-Gapp, is the fact that it is a preschool rather than a daycare, meaning that the staff follows academic curriculum frameworks.

"The curriculum that has to be followed is in line with what students then need to know in kindergarten. In daycare, it's really left to the individual teachers to design the curriculum. We design ours but they have to be in line within the frameworks," said Cromwell-Gapp, who also used to run a daycare.

All teachers are certified through the Massachusetts Teachers Association and have degrees in early childhood education. Because the school also has a special-education program based on individual needs, which can include occupational, physical and social therapy, teachers also have a special education background.

Because the school is part of the North Middlesex Regional School District, the teachers are in communication with the kindergarten teachers, easing the process of transition during matriculation.

"(The students) also have the chance to connect with peers they might be going to school with in the district," said Cromwell-Gapp. 

The school, which services all three district towns, enrolls children from age 3 to 5 and offers half-day programs two, three or five days a week and a full-day program five days a week. The prices are respectively $180, $240, $350 and $660 a month. As of right now, there is availability in the afternoon sessions, but based on the needs of enrollment, the school would open up another classroom, said Cromwell-Gapp.

"If there is a need to open up another full-day classroom because we had another 15 kids, that's something we would do," she said.