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Sue Bush
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Wednesdays With Savanna

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Friday, June 17, 2005

Steven Beagle and Savanna
North Adams – Savanna has big brown eyes and enviably long, golden-colored hair. She’s known around the Silvio O. Conte Middle School as a mediator, a social butterfly, and everybody’s best friend.

Golden Girl

She’s helpful; Savanna has been observed fetching tissues or turning on light switches, and she’s been summoned to classrooms by teachers because of her calming effect. New Hampshire-born, Savanna’s schooling included city-based training and she has returned to share her gifts.

Steven Beagle, 14, is a fan. During a June 16 interview, he raved about Savanna.

“When I’m in a bad mood, she comes up to me and makes me feel good,” Steven said.

Jessica Hall, 12, credited her good moods to Savanna.

“I just feel happy when I’m with her,” she said.

Melissa Desjardin's mother Becky helped train Savanna.
And Alex Trottier said that Savanna makes her so happy that she launched a petition asking that Savanna be permitted to come to the school more often than the scheduled weekly Wednesday visits.

Savanna is a two-year-old golden retriever owned by school Principal Diane Ryczk and trained as a “socialization dog” by city resident Becky Desjardin. The dog began visiting the school at the start of the 2004-2005 school year and has been spreading sunshine ever since.

The Sigh Heard 'Round the Room

School guidance counselor Vicki Moyer recalled an incident that involved two female students who did not get along and seemed unable to resolve their differences. The girls were meeting with Moyer and talks were not going well, Moyer said.

“Savanna was in the room, and here were these two students who couldn’t resolve their issues,” Moyer said. “They were just too angry. Suddenly, Savanna let out this great sigh, and the girls laughed and said ‘even Savanna is frustrated.’ The laughing broke the tension, and the girls got the situation resolved.”

Desjardin has been training dogs for the National Education for Assistance Dog Services [Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans] for about eight years. The non-profit organization was founded in 1976 and is based in Princeton, Mass.. Moyer has worked with therapy dogs, and her stories about the dogs’ capabilities intrigued Ryczk, Ryczk said.

“She used to tell us stories about how effective the dogs are,” she said.

Meeting NEADS

Ryczk was very interested in acquiring a dog for students at the school, and she discovered the NEADS group while conducting an Internet search. She completed the application process, which includes a trip to the NEADS facility and a personal interview, and was accepted as a potential NEADS dog owner. At first, Ryczk was told that she might wait up to 18 months before acquiring a suitable dog.

“But they called about three months later and asked if I could come down in June [2004] for a 10-day training,” Ryczk said.
Ryczk said she jumped at the opportunity and she and Savanna spent the training time getting acquainted.

Savanna brought a box of tissues to her owner Diane Ryczk.

“She’s been with me ever since,” Ryczk said.

Once Ryczk and Savanna “graduated,” Ryczk became the dog’s legal owner, and is responsible for her care. Savanna spent the days before school began getting familiar with Moyer and the school building, but people who’d encountered her while she was with Desjardin needed no introductions, Ryczk said.

“People remembered seeing her around and it was like Savanna came home,” Ryczk said.

Savanna also participated in a minimum-security prison-based assistance dog-training program, and the prisoners who worked with Savanna attended her graduation, Ryczk said.

“They were there, taking pictures, and they were so proud,” she said. “There were tears.”

The NEADS group trains dogs as “service dogs” for deaf and disabled people, “therapy dogs” that assist people with emotional, learning, and socialization challenges, and “social dogs” that provide therapeutic benefits to children and adults. Savanna was selected as a “social dog," partly because of her even disposition and her ability to give and receive affection.

When at school, Savanna wears a red strap over her nose. The strap is not a muzzle but a tool called a “gentle lead,” Ryczk said, and explained that the lead makes it easier for Savanna to understand where she is supposed to go and what she is supposed to do.

“When I put the lead on her, she knows that she’s working,” Ryczk said.

Love Grows Where Savanna Goes....

Jessica Hall and Alex Trottier:"When you're down, Savanna's right there to make you feel good."
Children flock to Moyer’s office on Wednesdays, Moyer said.

“Savanna helps students socially, students who may not be accepted by their peers,” she said. “Students walk Savanna and other students come up to them and talk to them because of Savanna. She’s a great ice-breaker.”

The dog has been called to classrooms to help settle upset students and has quite a success record, Moyer said.

“Teachers have called and asked that Savanna be sent to the classroom,” Moyer said. “She helps children remain in the classroom as a companion. She wants to be close to people. She doesn’t remove herself.”

Savanna is a friend to all and has no interest in whether students have been deemed “cool” by their human counterparts, Moyer said.
“She loves everybody. You don’t have to be the smartest, or the toughest, or the funniest.”

The costs of raising and training each assistance dog total more than $6,000, according to information provided by the NEADS organization. People acquiring a dog are asked to assist with fundraising efforts but are not asked to pay $6,000. Dog owners are asked to pay $500, which covers the cost of the dog, collars, leashes, and other training equipment, according to the information.

....And Nobody Knows Like Me

As the interviews proceeded, Savanna lay still and allowed herself to be hugged and petted by Hall, Trottier, and Beagle. She gazed at the students, responded to their requests for “kisses,” and snuggled her head into their laps.

A clearly smitten Steven spoke openly about his affection for Savanna.

“I’m never absent on Wednesday,” he said. “I like to be around Savanna and talk to her. She’s playful. She makes me feel good.”

And then, with gentle fingers brushing Savanna’s head, he added, “Right, Savanna? Right, girl?”


Sometimes, a wagging tail is worth a thousand words.

Additional information about the NEADS program is available at

Susan Bush may be reached at 802-823-9367 or by e-mail at
Your Comments
Post Comment
I love savanna. she is a great help to everyone at conte middle school. especially me and my friend jessica hall,who is on miss moyer's web site.
from: michelle johnsonon: 05-18 00:00:00-2006

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