The 100-pound Great Dane stands 39 inches tall, has floppy ears and a long, skinny tail with a tiny dollop of white.
But this 22-month-old is as placid as can be, content to nap on a cushy blanket close to her master’s desk, in between nibbles of doggie treats and a sloppy drink from her water bottle.
If all goes as planned, Pandora soon will be a regular in Frontier School District classrooms – right by the side of her master, Debbie Gromek, the district’s technology coordinator, who affectionately calls her “a baby.”
Gromek has been bringing Pandora to work at the Frontier Educational Center a few days a week since fall. But the Great Dane is about to become Frontier’s first districtwide reading therapy dog. She’ll primarily be focused at the prekindergarten through fifth-grade level, including working children with special needs.
The big pooch already is a hit with administrators and staff – ever cordial and friendly to them, and occasionally nudging them for attention. Interim Superintendent Paul Hashem learned quickly to stock up on dog treats in his office.
Pandora’s also already made her presence felt, accompanying Gromek to a tense administrative meeting two weeks ago.
“When it was my turn to talk, there was probably stress in my voice. She came over, and put her head on my hand, and wouldn’t move,” Gromek said.
Everyone at the meeting ended up relaxing more with Pandora there.
Pandora is still a student herself, “a therapy dog in training” at Orchard Park’s Eagle Ridge Kennels. If she passes her last remaining test, Gromek, who also is an adjunct professor at Niagara University, would like to be able to take her into her college classroom, as well.
“There’s something about bringing these dogs in, that makes a difference, even in college,” she said.
“The trainer has said she has a gentle soul,” said Gromek. “She loves people and likes to be in the middle of everything. She’s definitely very calm. A lot of people don’t even know she’s here.”
Pandora is on “winter break,” having passed her first two exams and needing to successfully complete the third component, which begins in March.
Gromek is thrilled about the prospect of having her in the classrooms, beginning maybe as early as June, but definitely by fall.
“Children will know she’s coming in and it will motivate them to finish their work,” she said. “She will lie down and during free time, the children can gather around her and ‘read’ to her. It’s kind of unique.”
Never did Gromek expect to have a Great Dane as her work companion. It all started rather innocently in July 2012 when Gromek began watching the Alaskan brown bears on Explorer.org. “Then, all of a sudden, I saw other animals and the Service Dog Project with Great Danes,” she recalled. “And I was hooked. I started researching it.”
Gromek noticed the project’s president, Carlene White, wrote about a group of Great Danes – including Pandora – she dubbed the “Fantastic Failures.”
Service Dog Project, based on a 12-acre farm in Ipswich, Mass., breeds and trains Great Danes as service dogs for people who have severe balance and mobility limitations.
“Carlene had the names of the dogs not making it as balance dogs,” Gromek recalled, explaining that Pandora flunked balance training because she tends to put her head down real low or lay down if she gets nervous.
White, who stays in close contact with all the owners of the dogs she has given away, is thrilled Pandora will be “reading” with Frontier’s kids.
“Great Danes are good for lying around and not doing too much, and snoring,” White said in an interview from her farm, where she begins training dogs at 3 weeks old by spoon feeding them out of a can and getting them to look at her, sit and behave, and learn their name. “You get two or three kids laying on them, reading, it’s perfect. They don’t mind at all. They have such a calming effect.”
It was by pure accident that White stumbled into her Great Dane project. For 30 years she had provided various animals for movies and commercials. But one day the Department of Agriculture told her she needed to put up higher fencing for her Great Danes.
“I had a Great Dane stud from Belgium,” she recalled. “I put up the damn fence, and that afternoon, my stud jumped the fence and bred three females in one afternoon. They were all in heat, unfortunately, and 63 days later, I had 23 Great Dane puppies.
“They were beautiful dogs. But I had so many dogs that I had to decide what to do with them. It was one of those lemonade deals: If you have too many lemons, what do you do?”
As time went on, Gromek became more fascinated watching the dogs at the farm through live online cameras and decided to make a pitch. She sent an email, explaining her proposal to use one of White’s “Fantastic Failures” as a reading therapy dog.
She clearly recalls White’s emailed response. “Hmmm ...,” was all it said.
Then, one of White’s workers subsequently sent an email, asking when Gromek could come to the farm. After a 7½-hour drive last Mother’s Day, Gromek met Pandora.
“People watch the live website all over the world. I thought about what are the chances we are going to be part of this project out of Boston,” Gromek said. “I’m still kind of stunned that I’m part of this.”
Gromek and her husband fell in love with Pandora and it was determined they were a good match for the dog. Pandora also has transitioned well in their Cheektowaga home with their 12-year-old lab, Mocha.
Gromek’s hope is that Pandora’s presence in the classroom will have a positive educational effect on the students.
“We have to start thinking differently to motivate kids,” she said. “This may not work with half the kids, but it may just be what the other half needs. I can’t believe the difference it’s made in this administrative building – the smiles she puts on people’s faces.”
“I think it will really be kind of cool,” said Hashem, the interim superintendent. “It could be a positive addition to the classroom.”