by ADAM GRUENEWALD
Walking through the halls with Weaver brings smiles to the faces of not only students, but educators at Cologne Academy.
Weaver, a 6-year-old English Labrador, has been at Cologne Academy since the beginning of January, and students and staff are already familiar with the dog.
The facility dog was brought in by Allie Thomson, who is in her first year as a paraeducator at Cologne Academy.
School Counselor Nicole Pierce had previously looked at having a dog in the school and Thomson’s hiring gave the school a great opportunity. Thomson was immediately on board too, recognizing the benefits of having a dog through the successes at other schools in the state.
“We just kind of identified a need that wasn’t being met for certain students at this school,” she said. “We just knew it would be a huge benefit here.”
Those benefits are at times difficult to measure, but when you see the dog interact with students they become obvious, Thomson said.
“It can change a kid’s day,” she said. “Like a kid who is having a hard time can come and visit with Weaver for 10 minutes, talk to him and play fetch with him. The kid typically leaves that room totally calm and ready to go back to class.”
The five-minute recess helps gets kids refocused.
Weaver is also used as a reward system because students work towards social, emotional and academic goals to get interaction time with Weaver or be put in charge of ensuring Weaver has water.
“We’re building in that responsibility at the same time,” she said. “They have a sense of pride in what they’re doing and are responsible for other things.”
Thomson, who has had Weaver since he was seven weeks old, originally trained him as a search-and-rescue dog. Thomson, who still trains dogs privately, prepared dogs for six years prior to her teaching position at Cologne Academy..
As a Reading Education Assistance Dog, Weaver has had extensive training to interact with certain types of students and also has received training through Pet Partners for therapy.
Among the specific examples, Weaver can assist with work completion by reducing anxiety or serving as a listening partner for students unwilling to read aloud in the classroom.
Cologne Academy avoided the three-year wait for a donated dog as well as costs, since Thomson had Weaver, who came originally from a local breeder in Cologne.
“Seeing as I had an older dog ready to go, we were able to implement it right away,” she said.
Weaver, who still lives with Thomson, appears calm at first glance in a school setting, but does not typically act that way at home.
“He kind of knows when he’s on,” she said. “He’s an obnoxious lab at home. He’s throwing the ball at my feet endlessly, he begs at the dinner table, but when he’s here, he knows he’s working.”
Thus far, the reception from teachers and parents has been great, as they notice students’ increasing eagerness to come to school.
“Teachers have absolutely noticed a positive impact in their classrooms as far as kids who visit with him,” she said. “There are select students on Monday morning that I make sure he has a chance to greet them. Their face just lights up and you can tell it’s a good start to their week.”
Those benefits are shown across the entire student body, including general and special education students.
“Weaver doesn’t judge kids,” said Thomson. “It doesn’t matter who they are.”
Fifth-grader Jack Peters said interacting with Weaver has been great.
“It’s been helpful,” he said. “I feel seeing him helps me calm down faster and just being able to pet him and give him a scratch.”
The dog also helps teachers, too, like fellow paraprofessional Jen Dolan, who sees the benefits for students and staff.
“It’s actually a lot of fun,” she said. “I enjoy seeing Weaver everyday myself. We kind of joke that staff needs Weaver time, too. It always brightens our day. He’s a great dog.”
Facility dogs are also used in area school districts such as Burnsville, Eagan, Savage and Apple Valley, and Thomson and Pierce see facility dogs as a growing trend.
In her third year at Cologne Academy, Pierce had seen the research from those schools so she made the push last spring for Cologne Academy to get a dog.
“Not a ton of schools have dogs,” said Pierce, who said several have dogs visit their schools but few have what Cologne Academy has. “We are probably one of the few schools who have him everyday.”
Pierce said the consistency is helpful because everyone recognizes Weaver and knows who he is.
“I see just students in general happy to see Weaver first thing in the morning,” she said. “Our whole school population enjoys having the dog here and just knowing they can have someone to talk to.”
As Weaver spends more time in Cologne Academy, he is becoming an example for schools statewide.
“I think it’s really going to become the standard,” said Thomson. “People are realizing how beneficial they are. They lower everyone’s blood pressure.”
Contact Adam Gruenewald at email@example.com.