Dare we say Hero, a golden Labrador retriever, is the “paws” that refreshes, cuddles and calms students at Eastview Elementary School in the Lakeville school district?
For part of each school day, Hero, a trained service dog, walks on a leash with one of four trained handlers and does his part to make education more enriching and enjoyable for students.
One of the handlers is Michelle Quirk, a parent who had two weeks of training with Hero. She loves dogs and has seen what Hero can do for the students.
During the day, Hero makes his rounds to the classrooms of first- to fifth-graders.
Principal Taber Akin says students like to read to the dog because he is not threatening, doesn’t correct them and just settles down and listens.
“Some students are reading easier and better,” said Akin, who along with his wife, Beth, a trained handler, kennels Hero at home when the dog not in the school. Akin and his family have two other dogs, as well.
If a student is having a tough day, Hero snuggles up to relieve that anxiety.
Students sometimes open up more to the dog than to people, Akin said.
Kristi Root, a fifth-grade teacher of special needs students, says the dog “increases their joy and happiness.”
Hero also lets the students hug him. He’s gentle, never bites and rarely barks.
The dog’s influence is everywhere. Walk down the stairs and look up, and there’s a colorful collage of Hero hanging from the ceiling.
Hero’s doghouse at the school’s entrance has a mail slot, where students slip messages to the dog.
“I’d like to take you home with me,” wrote one. (That is not allowed.) Fifth-graders secretly answer those messages in Hero’s voice.
Students who excel get to have lunch with Hero in a conference room, but not the lunchroom, where he is not allowed.
Akin got the idea for having a dog at school when he was the principal at Sioux Trails Elementary School in Burnsville. There he used a dog after reading about it and talking with school psychologist Holly Ryan, who uses her dog exclusively in her office at another school in the district.
Akin thought perhaps that experience could be broadened by having a dog at school. He consulted with parents and staff and they were in favor of trying it. Lakeville Schools Superintendent Lisa Snyder said she approves because she favors trying new methods to teach students.
Parents have raised at least $6,500 so far, with $3,500 used to place the trained dog – a training that could cost up to $25,000. They sold black and red “Hero” shirts for $10 to raise the funds. No school district funds are used.
Hero is becoming quite the celebrity.
A veterinarian at Dakota Pet Hospital provides his services for free, Fancy Paws Pet Salon grooms Hero at no charge, and Affinity Plus Credit Union has donated $2,000 to the service dog program. Threads and Inks printed the fundraiser shirts at a discounted price.
Skeptics may say learning can happen without a dog in the school.
Akin agrees, but he’s seeing unexpected progress in some students. As far as Akin knows, only one other elementary school in the country has a similar program. For now, Hero has proved a dog’s presence in Eastview can help students.
If you doubt this, you could be barking up the wrong tree.
Don Heinzman is a columnist for ECM Publishers.