Goodbye was harder than usual to say when classes ended at Shawnee Middle School this year.

The reason had much to do with a ball of yellow fuzz named Delores, who grew into a savvy dog capable of changing someone’s life dramatically.

This weekend, eighth-grade science teacher Linda McMahan is taking Delores to California, where she’ll begin professional training to become a service dog. But for the past 18 months, Delores has been a mainstay at Shawnee Middle School, nuzzling her way into the hearts of everyone from students to custodians to teachers.

McMahan has been a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a national organization that trains dogs to become service animals, such as a facility dog in a hospital, rehabilitation center or school, or a service dog for someone who is deaf or in a wheelchair. Delores stayed in McMahan’s classroom every day, greeted students in the hallways during breaks and had an effect on people that they’ll not soon forget.

“I knew Delores would have an effect on my classroom, but I had no idea how much,” McMahan said. “The last few weeks have been really hard knowing Delores would leave us, but it has helped me and the kids understand: we’re doing this for someone else. Someone else will have a better life because of Delores.”


Goodbye was harder than usual to say when classes ended at Shawnee Middle School this year.
The reason had much to do with a ball of yellow fuzz named Delores, who grew into a savvy dog capable of changing someone’s life dramatically.
This weekend, eighth-grade science teacher Linda McMahan is taking Delores to California, where she’ll begin professional training to become a service dog. But for the past 18 months, Delores has been a mainstay at Shawnee Middle School, nuzzling her way into the hearts of everyone from students to custodians to teachers.
McMahan has been a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a national organization that trains dogs to become service animals, such as a facility dog in a hospital, rehabilitation center or school, or a service dog for someone who is deaf or in a wheelchair. Delores stayed in McMahan’s classroom every day, greeted students in the hallways during breaks and had an effect on people that they’ll not soon forget.
“I knew Delores would have an effect on my classroom, but I had no idea how much,” McMahan said. “The last few weeks have been really hard knowing Delores would leave us, but it has helped me and the kids understand: we’re doing this for someone else. Someone else will have a better life because of Delores.”
McMahan’s journey with Delores began more than a year ago, when she drove to the airport in Dallas to pick up the dog from her flight. McMahan was worried the 8-week-old puppy would be traumatized from criss-crossing the country; Delores simply bounced out of her crate and gave McMahan a sloppy kiss.
From day one, Delores was in McMahan’s classroom, staying in a crate while the students went about their regular studies. During breaks, McMahan and Delores roamed the halls and commons areas, meeting and greeting along the way. Delores was a magnet for everyone who saw her, but the dog’s most profound effect may have been on students. Every child who wanted to pet Delores had to ask McMahan’s permission, she said, then wait for the dog to sit. The students learned patience and self-control, McMahan said, and soon began policing each other if someone forgot the rules.
Students in McMahan’s classroom may have gotten the most time with Delores, but the middle school’s 900-some students saw plenty of the dog.
“During down time, we’d walk through the commons areas. At first, I’d walk Delores through, and eventually, I would release her,” McMahan said. “She would go from group to group, and the students learned that if they would wait, she would make her way to all of them. She’d work the room. They’d see her coming toward them and their faces would light up. They loved to pet her.”
In McMahan’s own classroom, students’ behavior problems shrunk to a minimum after Delores’ arrival, she said. The dog’s calming presence and the responsibility of caring for her rubbed off on the students, who took ownership of Delores and walked her outside for breaks, she said. But Delores demonstrated her potential even more in her interaction with students who have special needs or are struggling through life for various reasons. One of the more tender examples was a boy in McMahan’s class who returned to school after the unexpected death of his mother.
“On the day before we got out for Christmas vacation, I let Delores stay on ‘release’ during class time,” McMahan said. “When I released her, she went straight to that young man. She stood there and put her head on his leg. The other kids tried to lure her away with toys, but she wouldn’t go. She finally laid down by his side, and he sat on the floor with her. She crawled into his lap and he rubbed her belly.
“He looked up at me and grinned. That was the first time I had seen him grin in weeks. I grinned back and turned around and left them. There are times when you just don’t interfere.”
SMS principal Dr. Marsha Gore, who gave the initial go-ahead for McMahan to bring Delores on campus, said the dog played an especially important role in the lives of students who are at a crucial and difficult age: transitioning to high school. Delores also served as an example of fairness by treating people equally, no matter their appearance or capability, she said.
“Delores put things into perspective,” Gore said. “I think the kids saw people with special needs in a different light, and what a dog can do for them. Delores knows no social boundaries. She accepted people for who they are. And when kids had bad days, Delores seemed to know it. She could sense that and made herself present where she needed to be.”
McMahan’s personal obligations to Delores were numerous, but worth every bit of her time, she said. CCI required a regimen for Delores that covered everything from health and nutrition to basic commands to exposure to all sorts of situations and sounds.
The 30 commands Delores was required to learn ranged from basic “sit” and “stay” to things that will become specific to a service dog, such as sitting under the chair at a restaurant or in a meeting, or jumping up to turn off or on a light switch. McMahan also introduced Delores to many settings, from raucous school assemblies to parades to local stores. Whenever Delores was wearing her CCI vest and gentle leader, she was always in “working” mode and tuned in to McMahan’s leadership.
From the beginning, McMahan knew that giving Delores back to CCI was part of the deal, albeit an emotional one. The tears she’s shed have been balanced by the good that Delores will do. It’s a lesson McMahan told her students: that people have the ability to make a difference in the world, in a variety of small and big ways.
“We know that Delores, for sure, will touch one life,” McMahan said. “And what a difference she will make in that one life.”
And McMahan’s journey as a puppy raiser is not over. After this weekend’s ceremonies to turn Delores over for professional training, McMahan will come home with Benisa, another yellow Labrador-golden retriever cross, to repeat the adventure in Shawnee.