International Festival of Attention – Grabbers – Florida (US)

Hi and welcome back to Attentionology for K – 5 Teachers!

For the thirteen and a half years that ended on August 13, 2012, anyone who met K-9 Officer, Diane Whetsel, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Florida (US), was likely to also meet her beloved service dog, Sage, shown with Diane in my blog pic below.

Diane Whetsel, K-9 Officer with Sage on a visit to the NC (US) State School of Veterinary Medicine

Diane Whetsel, K-9 Officer with Sage on a visit to the NC (US) State School of Veterinary Medicine

At the tender age of ten weeks, Sage, a Border Collie from the UK, came to live with Diane in New Mexico, her most recent home base, where Diane currently works in a corrections facility.

Diane describes their earliest encounters: “Even as a little puppy, Sage was wise beyond her years. Her name fit her perfectly; she seemed all-knowing of things she had just been exposed to for the first time.”

Little did Diane know what she and Sage would in fact, over time, be exposed to when Diane began training Sage, still a young 18-months-old dog, to become a K-9 disaster specialist for FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (US). Read on…

Diane’s own story is as compelling as the telling of Sage’s heroic life tales, and the attentionology connection is strong…

…Positive reinforcement grabs kids’ (and dogs’) hearts and consequently opens their minds to opportunities in and beyond school.

Why did Diane need her own positive reinforcement before her adult years presented her with the honor of lavishing praise on Sage during training?

Answer: Diane, 64, is dyslexic. Beginning at a very young age in an era when learning disabilities were often unknown and/or lacking in diagnosis and therapies, Diane struggled with standard academic structures. In elementary school Diane was severely deficient in reading and math sequencing.

When Diane entered fifth grade in Fort Lauderdale, her teacher, Mrs. Clemmons, smart and sensitive as she was, offered Diane much-needed positive reinforcement.  Looking back, Diane knows that Mrs. Clemmons’ use of positive reinforcement was a significant building block in Diane’s future. “Mrs. Clemmons focused on what I did well,” recalls Diane, “and we all like the things that we do well in.”

Diane remembers that Mrs. Clemmons recognized the fifth grader’s natural talent for drawing. “She’d roll out a 10-foot by 7-foot piece of newsprint and dedicate it as a mural wall in the back of our classroom. Mrs. Clemmons made me feel special because she asked ME, only me, to draw the mural all by myself before my classmates were allowed to color it in!” 

Note another attentionology trick – turn a back classroom wall into an open art project by tacking up newsprint and inviting students to create art. 

No one fully understood it then, but Mrs. Clemmons was adding onto another positive and life-changing experience that had begun for Diane the year before – namely an introduction to dog training with a man known only to her as “John.” (Diane later learned that “John” was an attorney in town who enjoyed dog obedience training as a hobby.)

Diane recalls being fascinated when she watched this man, day after day, work with dogs in a park next to her school.  “I lived close to my elementary school and in those days,” Diane says, “I’d walk home for lunch and back to school. After school I’d run home, change clothes, and scoot back to the park to play.”

If Diane were teaching a course in attentionology today, based on experiences that began in her early years, she’d emphasize the importance of teaching kids to be tenacious! Tenacity gets attention, she’s certain of it, as Diane continues her story…

…”I’d sit at the base of my favorite park tree and watch John train German Shepherds for AKC (American Kennel Club) competition in obedience,” she relates. “Finally I got up my nerve and went over to see if he’d let me pat the dogs and play with them, but I could tell that at first he didn’t want to bother with me.”

Undaunted, Diane returned to the park as many days as she could to watch and learn. “Finally,” she speculates, “the trainer (John) must have realized that ‘this kid wasn’t going away’ and he waved to me to come over and be part of his training. My work with dogs evolved from there.”

Sage passed her FEMA (US) certification test on her first try!

Sage passed her FEMA (US) certification test on her first try!

Years of diverse experiences and several dogs later, Diane put similar positive reinforcement practices to work in 1999 when she began training sweet Sage, shown standing tall in my blog pic here.

Diane’s pride spreads across her face; you can hear it in her voice as she describes how she taught Sage to NOT be dependent on a single handler.

“Because I taught Sage to respond to positive reinforcement (remember Mrs. Clemmons?) she was willing to work with people other than me, as long as they used the same positive approaches that I used…”

…and, did Sage ever rise to the challenge! “She was remarkable,” Diane says, expressing her love and admiration for her incredible dog. “Sage was unusually bright and eager as a learner,” (something all teachers love) “able to pass her certification test as a search and rescue dog for FEMA on her first try!”

Diane details Sage’s service leading to her worldwide recognition as a “Hero Dog” (officially in 2011). Sage worked with handlers, including Diane over a long “career.” Sage worked at the Pentagon in Washington, DC (US) in the aftermath of 9/11. From the bayou to the battlefield to faraway beaches, Sage provided search and rescue services, including for hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in Iraq and in Aruba.

In 2009 Sage was diagnosed with lung cancer, possibly resulting  from searching toxic sites. Diane and Sage turned their positive approaches to work with numerous cancer foundations. Diane formed The Sage Foundation For Dogs Who Serve. You can visit it at to promote the welfare of dogs that have faithfully served, often in harm’s way.

Sage received what Diane calls “a hero’s exit” when she died on August 13 last year in Diane’s loving arms.

Hero Dog, Border Collie Sage, is featured on the 2013 calendar of the American Humane Association

Hero Dog, Border Collie Sage, is featured on the 2013 calendar of the American Humane Association

This amazing dog is featured for the month of January with a photo similar to my blog pic here in the American Humane Association 2013 calendar.

Today, Diane is a proud “mom” again, to Sage’s great-niece.

Just before Sage turned two, she gave birth to seven beautiful Border Collie puppies. Three of them are carrying on Sage’s strong tradition of service. Two are Certified FEMA K-9s and one has grown up to become a certified service dog for the disabled.

Diane’s tenacity in overcoming her own educational challenges and her strength as a dog trainer continue, but Sage will forever hold the most special place in Diane’s heart.

In an article that Diane wrote for a UK publication, The Border Heartbeat, she closed in part with these words to Sage: “I will never forget the places we went, the things we saw and the wonderful people that we met, the things we were able to do for others and last but not least, the way we were together.” Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool.

Remember, you don’t need to be a magician to work magic in any instructional setting!

Talk with you again soon,

Barbara The Lovable Poet

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Posted in Attentionology for K-5 Teachers, International Festival of Attention-Grabbers
Barbara Cleary has been serving as a resource to hundreds of educators for more than 25 years. An award-winning writer, producer, teacher, and trainer, Barbara’s focus is on offering easy, fun tools and tricks that support K-5 curricula and assist teachers with classroom management.
Quick tips for common classroom conundrums: K-5
Situation: Students are acting sluggish in class.

Solution: Show "The BIG E," for ENERGY, an enlarged letter E (or other first letter for the word energy in your alphabet), available in craft stores. Remind the class that energy is a must-have item to get good work done. Tell the class to show you "The BIG E!"

Related Posts: Show Off "The Big E"