CASSTOWN — Nicole Bailey hoped her dog Arleigh would help improve the lives of others.
She had no idea he would help save hers.
“I cannot really express, in words, what he did for me,” the Miami East High School social studies teacher said. “I had a lot of dark days when I was going through chemotherapy and he would just come sit by me or lay by me. I don’t think anyone can truly understand what that is like unless they’ve gone through it. My husband and my family were wonderful, but there were some days when I would feel alone or isolated and he would put his little paw on me or I would look into his eyes …”
In 2014, at the suggestion of her stepmother Jill Demmitt, Bailey and her husband Jason decided to start training their dog Arleigh — an English goldendoodle named after U.S. Navy Admiral Arleigh Burke — to become a service/therapy dog who would help others in need.
“My stepmother works for Hospice and she told us, ‘He needs to be a therapy dog.’ He was just the cutest, fluffiest ball of joy. We started the process of him becoming a service dog and we made it through five of the eight classes when I was diagnosed.”
On April 1, 2015, Bailey received the devastating news that she had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, one of the most aggressive forms of the disease.
“I was given four to six months to live,” Bailey said. “I told my husband I wanted him to make sure Arleigh finished the program, no matter what. That was important to me. But low and behold, I responded well to the treatment.”
With Arleigh by her side every step of the way, Bailey beat the odds and far exceeded the fate the doctors had diagnosed for her. She would spend much of the next year in treatment and building up her strength. By the spring of 2016, she was ready to return, on a limited basis, to teaching at Miami East.
Bailey — herself a 1994 Miami East High School graduate — did not return alone.
“I started coming back that spring and helping to tutor students for the end-of-course exams,” she said. “In March and April of 2016, I was helping with the proctor test (state testing) and I noticed the increased amount of stress the kids were feeling. I would bring Arleigh in with me and I would see kids who were taking the test reach back and pet Arleigh and something as simple as that really seemed to help calm them down.”
Bailey said she brought the dog back in part to help the students, but knows deep down how much she benefited from having her companion around, as well.
“I think (Miami East administrators) had him come in as much to help me when I came back as help the kids,” Bailey said. “They knew how much he meant to me.”
When the school year ended, Bailey said she didn’t have any plans on bringing Arleigh back to school on a full-time basis in the fall of 2016. That changed when she brought him to freshman orientation before the start of the new school year.
“I brought him in for freshman orientation because I thought new students would enjoy seeing this welcoming little fluffball,” Bailey said. “As I was walking out to the parking lot after orientation, (Miami East High School principal) Mr. (Todd) Gentis said, ‘See you tomorrow, Arleigh.’ And I thought, ‘Hmm … he said he would see him tomorrow.’ So I started bringing him the first few days. Then I just kept bringing him.
“I cannot express enough how awesome the administration at Miami East is. Not only are (Miami East superintendent) Dr. (Todd) Rappold, Mr. Gentis, and (Miami East assistant principal) Mr. (Scott) Donaldson committed to the students, but also their staff. The have allowed Arleigh into the school and truly embraced his presence. I believe they are visionaries — they have been able to see the difference that Arleigh makes in the life of our kids, even if only for a few hours each day at school. Their forward thinking leadership is definitely one of the many reasons that Miami East is such a special place.”
As Miami East’s administrators have embraced Arleigh, so too have students and teachers at Miami East. He’s become a fixture at the school, often appearing at sporting events and other extracurricular activities. Bailey said she’ll frequently get visitors to her room thinking they’ve come to see her, only to find out they’ve come to see Arleigh. He essentially has a free run of the school, and many teachers keep dog snacks in their room for when Arleigh stops by for a visit.
“He’s like an institution in the school,” Bailey said. “(Miami East football coach Max) Current gave him a football jersey to wear to games. (Miami East girls basketball coach Bruce) Vanover got him a jersey that he wears on game days. He got his picture taken with our state championship volleyball team. He had his picture in the yearbook and he even has his own school ID badge.”
Arleigh is even branching out and spending some of his time at other schools within the district. When school is not in session, he often frequents assisted living facilities.
“He loves to have kids read to him,” Bailey said. “He’s especially great with the special needs kids in our district. It’s like he knows they need his love and attention. The people at Garbry Ridge (Assisted Living) absolutely love him. When we pull up, there will be people waiting for him in the lobby. We’ll have different people come into our building — we’ve had college recruiters come in — and they can’t help but smile when they see him. He’s got a lot of love to give.”
In some cases, the kind of love that can help save a life.
Follow David Fong on Twitter @thefong