Bad hips prevented Bishop from being a service dog. Now he works with kids.

Bishop makes school a little easier for some Belleville kids

A black lab trained to be a service dog for people with disabilities ended up a beloved addition to Westhaven Elementary School as a facility dog.
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A black lab trained to be a service dog for people with disabilities ended up a beloved addition to Westhaven Elementary School as a facility dog.

When he was 2 years old, a black Lab who was training to become a service dog showed the early signs of hip problems.

That meant he would struggle to do the job of assisting people who have disabilities.

But because of his temperament and his affection for children, trainers thought Bishop would be a good fit for another job: a facility dog.

This academic year, Bishop started working full-time at Westhaven Elementary School in Belleville. He even gets his picture in the yearbook next to the rest of the staff.

For students like Lilyan Olack, having Bishop around is helping their grades.

Lilyan, a fourth-grader, said she used to get nervous when she would take tests, but sitting with Bishop while she works calms her down.

“I keep going and trying,” Lilyan said of her experience with tests now. “He lets me do that.”

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Bishop, center left, started working full-time at Westhaven Elementary School in Belleville this year. Copy

Other students can stop by to pet him before heading to class, or take a longer break and read a book to him.

Some of the students who work with Bishop struggle with reading, specifically in their classes, so they visit him to practice.

Bonnie Leveling, Bishop’s handler, said “employing” a facility dog doesn’t actually cost Belleville School District 118, which includes Westhaven. Leveling is also a speech therapist at the school.

Bishop’s hip surgery and training were taken care of by CHAMP Assistance Dogs, a Missouri-based nonprofit that matches people with dogs on both sides of the river, according to Pam Budke, its executive director.

And as Bishop’s handler, Leveling covers the costs of his care today.

Liam Collins, a sixth-grader, was a strong advocate for bringing Bishop to Westhaven full-time. He sent a letter to District 118 Superintendent Matt Klosterman about it.

“He just calms all the kids down sometimes,” Liam said on a recent morning in Leveling’s classroom. “He just sits at your feet and tries to relax you. … He makes people laugh sometimes.”

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Westhaven 6th grade students, Liam Collins, JaMaria Fox, Kordall Hill and Giselle Lujan take a break to interact with Bishop. Derik Holtmann

Facility dogs can also be found in hospitals, courtrooms and child advocacy centers, all working to ease anxiety or fear.

The St. Clair County Child Advocacy Center, for example, has Homer, a black Lab who will sit with children during interviews about their experience with sexual and physical abuse.

Carolyn Hubler, the executive director of the center, conducts the interviews. She said it’s a stressful job, but seeing Homer in the office helps.

She described him as affectionate. “You need a Homer hug, you get one,” Hubler said.

According to Budke, of CHAMP, the dogs need time to unwind, too, after all they do to help people. She said it can be stressful for them when they sit with someone who is crying, for example.

“We want them to be a real dog and be able to get away from work just like we do,” Budke said. That’s why they live with handlers like Leveling, who take them home each night they’re finished working.

Bishop and Homer also get breaks throughout the day to go outside and to play with their toys.

Lilyan, the Westhaven fourth-grader, said she can tell Bishop just wants to play sometimes.

“He wants to explore the world, but still he has a lot of friends in the school that come down here and work, and…if they are nervous, he helps them calm down and maybe get great grades and things like that,” she said. “Everybody should love Bishop because he’s a nice dog, and probably he will love everybody in the whole entire school.”

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The metro-east is home for investigative reporter Lexi Cortes. She was raised in Granite City, went to school in Edwardsville and now lives in Collinsville. Lexi has worked at the Belleville News-Democrat since 2014, winning multiple state awards for her investigative and community service reporting.

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