PAW-Some Pup Run Club empowers students, inspires ‘joy,’ ‘confidence’

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Photo credit: Archer Communications

A group of middle school students participate in the PAW-Some Pup Run Club, working on dog agility and helping Boo go over a hurdle. “[The dogs have] actually improved a lot,” sixth grader Josephine Hatton said. “At the beginning, some of them did not know how to do anything at all, and the students have trained them to be really attentive and do the agility courses.”

Students running through obstacles courses with dogs. Laughter and wagging tails. Dog hurdles, tunnels and hula hoops set up along the grass. This describes Archer’s back field every Wednesday at lunch when a group of students come together for their PAW-Some Pup Run Club meetings.

The club includes both middle and upper school students and meets weekly on the back field so that dogs have space to run through agility courses and can consistently work on improving their skills. Karen Pavliscak, Associate Head of School for Teaching & Learning, is the faculty supporter and a co-trainer for this club, and her dog, Mr. Hubble, has been designated “team captain.” 

“It has been outstanding — probably our best year yet,” Pavliscak said. “I call it Archer’s dog agility team, and I like that there’s this playful competitive element to it.” 

Archer is a dog-friendly community and 12 dogs from faculty and staff members are approved to be on campus. Nine dogs participate in the dog agility courses, and the club is organized to have the students learn how to properly work with dogs and teach them how to go through obstacles in an agility course. 

“I think that training dogs on campus is something not a lot of schools do — I don’t think any of the schools really do that,” seventh grader and middle school leader of PAW-Some Pup Run Abigail Weiner said. “Archer’s so unique, from its history to the girls here — I think this is just another unique thing that Archer has.” 

Working with dogs on their agility can create meaningful connections and can also benefit both the dog and the runner.

“[Dog agility] is a competitive sport that involves training, athleticism, spirit and partnership, both with the trainer and the dog,” Pavliscak said. “I’ve always done agility work outside of school with my dogs. It is fun, it is exercise, it is communication. You learn to communicate and partner with your dogs in a really beautiful way.” 

For many students, being a part of the club is an opportunity to be with animals they love, especially if they don’t have a dog of their own. Spending more time with the dogs at school can provide a calming and joyful environment that helps students learn.

“I think it’s a really great experience for me since I don’t have a dog at home and I love them,” sixth grader Josephine Hatton said. “It’s really great to actually have interaction with dogs at school and it actually helps me focus for the rest of the day after I have that club.” 

There is interest in dog agility from all different grade levels, especially middle school. Students build memorable connections from being a part of the club, whether with the dogs, teachers or other students participating.

“I love training the dogs. It’s so special to me because when I was first applying to Archer and I went for my shadow day, that was my big memory I have. I helped Mr. Hubble go through a jump and then a tunnel,” Weiner said. “I was like, ‘Wow, I want to do that if I go to Archer,’ and it’s just so special to me to work with everybody.” 

Sophomore Anna Entin is the leader of the club and co-founded it when she was in seventh grade, at the end of 2018, originally starting it as the PAW-Some Obedience X-Block. After being forced to take a break her freshman year due to online learning, Entin decided to start up dog agility and training again, but this time as a club.

I want [girls] to see what they’re capable of doing when they’re confident and they’re in their own body understanding that you are communicating nonverbal messages to the creatures around you, whether they’re human or animal … and then she can take it into her public speaking, into her collaboration, into her future leadership.”

— Karen Pavliscak, Associate Head of School for Teaching & Learning

“I’ve been leading this club since seventh grade,” Entin said. “It’s really a good feeling to have that leadership and to see the club grow and to see how people are excited to sign up.” 

So many students want to join the club that it had to be divided into sessions that rotate every five weeks. During the first session as a new group, students learn the fundamental rules, like what to say to the dogs, how to get the dogs over a jump, how to pick up a dog and other basics for dog agility. The remaining meetings in that rotation are focused on the students having fun and getting to work with the dogs and improve their agility skills. 

“These dogs, all of them rescues, are really excited about the prospect of just partnering with girls,” Pavliscak said. “One of the beauties is that because there’s so much interest, Anna has a rotating monthly workshop and different girls come in and continue the dogs’ learning education and competitive spirit.” 

Students have the opportunity to work with the dogs individually to make the experience more personalized, and there are a variety of activities for the club members to help the dogs with. 

“We try and let there be some freedom. I usually just walk around and help different students with the dogs they’re working on because all the dogs are at a different level. On a normal day, we’ll create one big course that has multiple jumps [and] a tunnel,” Entin said. “The dogs that are stronger with agility usually go on the big course, and then dogs who need to specifically work on one skill, like the jumps, work on the jumps.” 

There are also local, state and national teams that compete in dog agility competitions, where dogs try to get through an obstacle course as quickly as possible. A long term idea and goal for the club is possibly having the trained dogs compete in some of these official competitions. 

“I would like there to be a group of girls who really want to dedicate themselves to making this a competitive enterprise, and I would like to compete against other teams,” Pavliscak said. “To my knowledge, there’s no other school team, but there are amateur teams out there. They’re usually adults, but we’re fierce and we could compete.” 

Working with dogs and being able to see their improvement in their agility can excite and empower students.  

“I think just when you’re running a dog, especially a dog that’s really good, and when you say ‘over’ and they actually go over the jump … that’s a really good feeling and you feel empowered, you have full control,” Entin said. “Knowing that I’m bringing joy to so many people is also really empowering.” 

The accepting and open way that students and dogs interact with each other also contributes to the club fostering a strong sense of purpose and self-confidence in students.

“When a student connects with a dog with a non-judgmental gaze and understands that how she holds her shoulders, how she runs forward, how she uses her voice and the competence of her physicality increases that partnership and the ability for the dog to understand her, it is an incredibly empowering realization for a girl, who then can translate that to being a confident, clear communicator in other aspects of her life,” Pavliscak said. “I find that to be one of the most rewarding parts of our agility teamwork.”