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St. John Neumann’s unusual new staff member

St. John Neumann Catholic School welcomed an unusual new staff member Friday, Oct. 15 — one of the four-legged variety.

Keric, a 10-year-old black Labrador retriever, will be taking up her post in Vicki McKernan’s fourth-grade classroom as a HABIT dog.

HABIT, Human Animal Bond in Tennessee, is a non-profit program of The University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, and encourages therapy through human-animal relationships.

At St. John Neumann, Keric will benefit all students emotionally and educationally, McKernan said.

“She’s going to be a curriculum helper,” McKernan told the students during a morning assembly.

“She is going to teach you things teachers sometimes can’t. She’ll teach you how to live your life ... to respect each other ... about responsibility and compassion,” she added.

“I really believe in this program, and I just know it’s going to be wonderful. I can’t wait,” SJN assistant principal Stacey Eppolito said.

McKernan initially raised Keric as a Canine Companions for Independence dog, and eventually used Keric in her classroom at West Hills Elementary School.

Keric “will be in my classroom two days a week, and she’ll be here to nurture my children in my classroom, and any child in the school that might need to spend some quiet time with the dog,” McKernan said.

HABIT dogs such as Keric help teachers reach students on an emotional level, McKernan said.

“These dogs provide a bridge and a curriculum between the emotional part of the child — the child I can’t reach, deep inside — that impacts the way they learn.

“So she comes in and makes my classroom more relaxed, secure. Now the child is more relaxed and more calm, and the child is more willing and capable of learning: he’s able to pay attention; he doesn’t worry about outside factors or what’s happening at home,” McKernan said.

“Because every morning that he comes in, he knows that dog is going to greet him with a wagging tail, and she provides unconditional love whether he makes high grades or low grades,” she added.

St. John Neumann is the first East Tennessee diocesan school to have a HABIT dog, although HABIT dogs have been placed in other area public schools, including Farragut Intermediate.

For more information about HABIT, visit


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