LEVELLAND — It's not often one gets to take his four-legged friend to school — especially not one as big or as hairy as Tango the Leonberger.
But Tango, a 120-pound behemoth of an animal, isn't walking the halls of Levelland Middle School for show and tell. Through her calm, confident and caring temperament, she's actually teaching the students in D'Nae Wilson's classroom basic social behaviors.
Wilson calls Tango her "co-teacher" for the Mutt-i-grees class the pair began last semester. Mutt-i-grees — a curriculum being used in schools across America — uses children's natural affinity for animals to teach values such as loyalty and respect and also basic human skills like greeting strangers and respecting others' space.
It can also be classified as an anti-bullying class in that the overarching goal is to teach students to have empathy for others, Wilson said.
On Jan. 15, Wilson used her dog to show students how personality differences among peers should be valued and not the cause for unkindness or discrimination.
Tango's temperament was laid back, which wouldn't make her a good search and rescue dog, Wilson said. In the same way, a group of friends, classmates or co-workers needs various personalities working together to function.
As the students took a written personality assessment, Tango wandered the aisles, pausing to receive affection from outstretched hands.
Wilson said she first met Tango as a puppy when dog breeder Waltraut "Val" Zieher — a woman who brought the Leonberger breed to the U.S. with her from Germany — took Tango, now 4, to the veterinary clinic where Wilson was working. The two women bonded over their love for the breed, and Wilson soon had a part in raising some of Zieher's puppies, she said.
Zieher and Tango used to visit nursing homes and children's hospitals using animal therapy to provide companionship and comfort to the patients.
But Zieher was sick herself and frequently left town to seek cancer treatments, leaving Tango in Wilson's care. When Zieher died last year, Wilson adopted the dog as her own, adding to her already large collection of animals which includes five dogs, one cat and four horses. Tango still goes to nursing homes on Fridays when she's not at school with Wilson.
"Dogs release oxytocin which gives off a calm vibe," Wilson said as Tango laid near her feet Wednesday. "She creates an environment more than anything."
She also acts as a facilitator for class discussions on feelings, Wilson said. Since dogs can't tell people how they feel, humans have to read their body language to find out. It's the same with some humans who are less vocal than others about the emotions they're experiencing inside them.
Wilson says last semester, a talk on what Tango was feeling led the class to think, "How are my actions making my classmate feel?"
Sixth-graders Samuel Trevino and Noah Riddle took the class last semester and decided to take it again for the lessons both said they learned from being in the class and around the big dog.
"I thought it was pretty fun. I learned to express myself out in the free world," Riddle, 11, said. He said Tango was an example to him of how to live without worries.
Trevino, also 11, took note of the fact that Tango was never sad and that trained dogs have human-like features.
Trevino said he learned to "not be as mean whenever somebody needs something. Help them out. It told me no matter what kind of personality we are, we all need to be treated the same or equal."
Another topic that comes up in the class is stereotypes, Wilson said, and she uses the curriculum's own name as an introduction. The word "mutt" often has a negative connotation, and the students have a discussion about why stereotypes are or are not OK.
In some cases, Mutt-i-grees is used as a segue into teaching children about adopting dogs, Wilson said, and she hopes to incorporate rescue animals into the classroom this semester.
Wilson said she does plan to bring three of her other dogs to class to illustrate certain points in the curriculum when appropriate.
Though Wilson said it's hard to tell if the class has had a lasting impression on students who took the course last semester, she believes there was a difference in the way her students treated one another — at least while they were in the classroom.
"I definitely think that kids started thinking more about others than themselves," she said.
Mutt-i-grees started as a way for Wilson to combine her passion for dogs with her career as a teacher and coach.
The class is offered as an elective at the middle school during Wahoo Wednesdays — a midweek afternoon break from students' regular schedules when they can choose from several enrichment and remediation courses to attend.