Kenna Elementary has gone to the dogs – literally.

Before the end of the school year, the school hosted an event called “Dog Days of Summer,” in which a number of canine (as well as some feline) friends came to visit the students. The event was organized by kindergarten-through-fifth-grade reading teacher Kathy Simmons as part of a program called “One Book, One School, One Family.” Every year, everyone in the school reads the same book, and also shares that book with their families.

This year, it was the book “Because of Winn-Dixie” by Newberry Medalist Kate DiCamillo. Amazon.com describes the book as follows: “The One summer’s day, ten-year-old India Opal Buloni goes down to the local supermarket for some groceries – and comes home with a dog. But Winn-Dixie is no ordinary dog. It’s because of Winn-Dixie that Opal begins to make friends. And it’s because of Winn-Dixie that she finally dares to ask her father about her mother, who left when Opal was three. In fact, as Opal admits, just about everything that happens that summer is because of Winn-Dixie.”

During the event that was inspired by the book, numerous animals and their handlers visited the school, including officials and animals from the Jackson County Animal Shelter; West Virginia Canine Search and Rescue; Operation Fancy Free Cat Rescue; Therapy Dog Dixie and her handler, Heather Zuniga; Dog Groomer Kristie Carr; and a local veterinarian.

Simmons said the students learned a great deal, everything from how to groom their pets to the importance of not leaving them in hot vehicles or in places without food, water and shelter.

They also learned important lessons, including what to do if they become lost in the woods in order to help search-and-rescue dogs find them. This information was particularly important in light of a recent incident in Kenna in which a small child became lost in the woods overnight, sparking a massive search that ended when the child was found alive.

Todd Bacchus of West Virginia Canine Search and Rescue said events like Dog Days of Summer are a great opportunity to teach kids how to be safe. He said group members use these opportunities to teach lessons from their “Hug a Tree” program.

“We talk about what to do if you become lost. We talk to them about never going out alone and always taking water, a compact disc to use for signaling, a whistle, a trash bag and a jacket, even in the summer,” he said.

The students also learned about dogs with different jobs, as well as therapy dogs who help people feel better. Zuniga is a former member of the United States Armed Services who started doing pet therapy when she was stationed at Fort Knox. Still today, she takes her dog, Dixie, around to veterans’ centers and elder care facilities to cheer up people and help them relieve stress and anxiety.

Zuniga said she and Dixie enjoy opportunities like Dog Days of Summer to talk to students.

“It’s something I wish I could do all the time,” she said. “You can just watch their stress levels go down.”

Fourth-graders Ellie McCloy and Megan Torres said they enjoyed the visit from the animals. Both said they particularly enjoyed learning about the dogs who have jobs.

McCloy said her favorite was Dixie the therapy dog.

“That dog helped army people who had just came back,” she said.

Torres was interested in, Bonnie, the search and rescue dog that belonged to Bacchus.

“She helps people who go missing get back to their families,” Torres said. ¤