It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say, Willy is the big man on campus.
ALYCIA BERESFORD, PRINCIPAL OF MISSION BASILICA SCHOOL, IS PICTURED WITH WILLY, THE SCHOOL’S THERAPY DOG, AND STUDENTS FROM MRS. VEGA’S KINDERGARTEN CLASS. PHOTO BY DREW KELLEY/DIOCESE OF ORANGE
Based on the number of excited waves and happy hellos aimed his way, this canine is quite the fan-favorite among students and staff at Mission Basilica School.
Maybe it’s those big brown eyes or that he was born on Valentine’s Day – but Willy has indeed captured hearts in San Juan Capistrano.
Willy, the 7-year-old chocolate Labrador, was originally trained through Guide Dogs of the Desert to aid the blind. This organization spends thousands of hours training dogs to “provide mobility, companionship and independence for the blind.” (https://guidedogsofthedesert.org/)
But when, for whatever reason it doesn’t work out, the dogs are sometimes “re-careered” to be emotional support/therapy dogs.
STUDENTS FROM MRS. VEGA’S KINDERGARTEN CLASS GREET WILLY THE THERAPY DOG ON APRIL 3 AT THE MISSION BASILICA SCHOOL CAMPUS. PHOTO BY DREW KELLEY/DIOCESE OF ORANGE
HOW WILLY CAME TO MBS
Alycia Beresford, principal of Mission Basilica School, first heard about therapy dog programs through the Garden Grove Police Department who had worked with a public school district to pilot a therapy dog program. The police department had praised the program’s benefits, and helped Beresford find the appropriate trainers and organizations.
ALYCIA BERESFORD, PRINCIPAL OF MISSION BASILICA SCHOOL, FREQUENTLY HANDS OUT WILLY THE DOG STICKERS TO STUDENTS ON THE SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO CAMPUS.
“The reason I decided to pursue this type of program was that we have a real focus – state-wide and within the Diocese – on the social and emotional learning of students,” she said.
Beresford contacted the organization who said Willy would be a good match for a school because if his loving and caring disposition. Coby Webb, a retired police officer, originally trained Willy and helped place him with Beresford.
“I felt like he’d be a great support for kids with anxiety and depression or for those facing other issues in life, especially coming out of the pandemic,” Beresford said. “He can work in conjunction with our counselor as a support for the students.”
Beresford received training to be Willy’s handler and goes for follow-up training every three months. He lives with Beresford and her family and comes to work with her every day. He stays in her office in between classroom visits and the occasional recess and lunch duty.
While other schools in the Diocese of Orange periodically bring in therapy dogs for visits, Mission Basilica is the only diocesan school to have its own on-campus therapy dog.
“He’ll go out there and the kids really bond with him,” said Beresford. “He really brightens their day.”
Willy also works in the classroom as a “Reading Buddy” to help students gain confidence in their reading skills.
When these students are reading aloud, “the dog isn’t judging them,” Beresford added.
Beresford even had stickers made to give students a confidence boost – they say, “Willy’s proud of you.”
Even though it’s a relatively new program at the school, Beresford said she’s noticed that the kids are really attached to Willy, and he has helped in situations where kids needed those interventions and extra support.
“We had a child the other day who was having a hard day, so we brought him to office and Willy helped him work through his emotions,” she said.
She has received positive feedback from parents, and because the school is mindful of students with allergies, it follows protocol in that capacity.
Willy is beginning to become known outside the school’s walls as well, and recently walked in this year’s Swallow’s Day Parade.
Beresford said she hopes to expand the program and involve Willy in more community outreach.
But according to Beresford, once the vest comes off and Willy clocks out for day, he is just a normal dog.
“He gets very playful and energetic,” she said, “and is known to sneak to occasional extra dog treat.”