Eastview principal proposes a different kind of warm fuzzy

District 194 may add its first full-time school resource dog

Kenwood Trail Middle School sixth-grader Edward Roubinek smiles as he gives Tory, a Labrador retriever, a hug. School staff are known to also seek out visiting therapy dogs to pet and hug. (Photo by Laura Adelmann)

Kenwood Trail Middle School sixth-grader Edward Roubinek smiles as he gives Tory, a Labrador retriever, a hug. School staff are known to also seek out visiting therapy dogs to pet and hug. (Photo by Laura Adelmann)

Eastview Elementary Principal Taber Akin is hoping to add a four-legged staff member at school.

Akin is seeking input from school families about his proposal to incrementally introduce a trained school resource dog.

He said the dog could perform a variety of functions, including providing a calming presence, motivating students and demonstrating what it means to listen and follow directions.

“This isn’t about bringing a pet to school,” Akin said. “I’m not trying to take one of my existing dogs and spend time with it. This is about making more connections with students.”

As proposed, the school would work with Pawsitive Perspectives Assistance Dogs (PawPADs), a Savage organization that trains service dogs, to pick the right dog.

Natalie Ball, 11, reads to Tory, a PawPADs dog, during school at Kenwood Trail Middle School. (Photo by Laura Adelmann)

Natalie Ball, 11, reads to Tory, a PawPADs dog, during school at Kenwood Trail Middle School. (Photo by Laura Adelmann)

Great effort is made to match a dog’s personality and skills to the role it will play in serving people.

Akin’s wife, Beth, works at PawPADs and together they are active volunteers in the organization. The dog would stay at their house when not at school.

The $3,500 cost for the trained dog would be covered by donations, and no district money would be used, Akin said.

The resource dog would help engage students throughout the school and in special education classes. The dog would always be leashed, kennelled or in a closed room, supervised by a trained adult and kept away from students fearful of dogs or allergic to them.

School staff would volunteer to be trained handlers, and training would be conducted during off-school hours.

The dog would never go into the school cafeteria, and its initial school visits would start on a trial basis once per week to make sure the program is working.

Eventually, Akin would like to have the resource dog in the school all day, every day.

“I hope it’s going to fly,” Akin said. “I’m excited about it.”

Akin said research has shown dogs in school can reduce stress and anxiety, results that reflect what Lakeville school psychologist Holly Ryan has seen at Kenwood Trail Middle School.

She has used therapy dogs there for about 10 years on a limited basis and is in her third year of working with PawPADs.

Students in her “Making a Positive Difference” program are taught to train the dogs to perform increasingly challenging tasks, with the goal that they eventually leave to become a service dog for a disabled person.

Some of the students who benefit from working with the dogs have emotional or behavioral issues that can interfere with student achievement.

Success in teaching the dog to perform a task like turning off a light switch is a confidence-builder for students.

Ryan said interacting with the dogs also help students learn behavioral and social skills that can improve interactions with people.

Ryan said she has seen students “totally shut down,” crying with their head on the desk in defeat move on to have a great day after cuddling with one of the therapy dogs.

“When they are upset or sad, dogs are a comfort without saying anything,” she said.

Natalie Ball, a Kenwood Trail sixth-grader, described how being with a dog helps her and others manage emotions.

“When we’re upset, they help us calm down to where we can cuddle up with them and read a book,” she said.

The program at Kenwood Trail is small compared to the school-wide program Akin would like to employ at Eastview.

He envisions the resource dog greeting students as they arrive to school, listening to students read, and participating in classroom lessons, such as demonstrating what it means to listen and follow directions.

Brushing the dog could help students who struggle with fine motor skills, and walking the dog could encourage activity and serve as incentive for students to meet individual goals in behavior, social skills and academics.

The dog could also be trained to tell by smell if a diabetic is in need of a shot, eliminating the need for testing.

Having a dog in school would not just support students, but also staff who may benefit from a warm friend to hug to cope with a stressful day, Akin said.

The proposal is in its exploratory stage and would have to be approved by the Lakeville School Board, but he already has the support of Superintendent Lisa Snyder.

District spokesperson Linda Swanson said Akin brought in one of the PawPADs service dogs to a meeting he recently had with Snyder to discuss the proposal.

“This dog was so amazing to me,” Swanson said. “He was so calm. It was like it took your blood pressure down about 10 points just being around the dog.”

Swanson said Snyder is always open to innovation.

“Lisa can look at something that is out of the ordinary, because a school resource dog is certainly out of the ordinary for an elementary school, and see the benefit to it for students,” she said.

“Right now we have leadership that’s very supportive of innovation,” Ryan said.

Swanson said about 80 percent of families responding to Akin’s resource dog survey were positive, and Akin is working to resolve concerns raised by the remaining 20 percent, which were primarily centered on finances and student allergies.

He said he is committed to listening to feedback and addressing concerns.

“We’re not just plowing ahead,” Akin said. “But we’re listening to our families.”

He hopes to have a month-long trial to test the program, but would first seek School Board approval.

“It would bring another instructional tool to the school,” Akin said. “Obviously, this tool has a heartbeat and a tail, but one of our goals is to have Eastview be a place students get up and want to come to, so they are excited to be here. Adding a dog is another way to do that. It’s a different type of interaction, a different kind of warm fuzzy.”

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