In the coming month, Eastview Elementary in Lakeville will have a new classroom helper — one with four legs and a wagging tail.
Hero, a yellow lab, will soon begin his duties as one of only a few school resource dogs in the state, helping students with various academic, social and physical tasks every day.
Eastview principal Taber Akin said he sees the dog "as an instructional tool," though "this is obviously different because it has a heartbeat and a tail."
The school board approved Akin's proposal to bring the highly-trained dog to school after the completion of a month-long pilot study. During that time, two dogs helped special education students with various activities, from getting exercise to moving to a new class. The dogs also offered a listening ear to students reading below grade level.
In both parts of the study, the dogs were highly successful in helping students who were motivated by the chance to spend time with an animal, said Akin.
"This is something that I think would be so great for kids because there's a lot of fear involved with reading," said Kristi Root, a special ed teacher at Eastview. "This is a non-judgmental figure that's going to love you no matter what."
Hero will have a positive effect on school climate, said Akin. "One of my goals is to have Eastview be a place students want to come," he said. "I think the dog is going to be a tool that's going to get kids to school and … want to be there."
Hero will live with Akin, who already has two dogs. Akin will transport him to and from school each day.
Hero, who is three years old, has been specially trained to complete tasks like turning on lights and picking up items. He can even smell when a diabetic's blood sugar is low, said Linda Ball, executive director at PawPADS, a Savage-based nonprofit that trains service dogs for various purposes and then places them. Hero was chosen for Eastview because he's "just very laid-back" and loves children, said Ball.
While guide dogs for the blind have existed for 90 years, using dogs in school is relatively new, especially in Minnesota, Ball said. "Just in the past five years there has been this massive amount of growth," she said. Dogs have "so many more uses that we never imagined."
Also in Lakeville, Kenwood Trail Middle School has PawPADS dogs that come in weekly. As part of a long-standing program, students get to train and handle the dogs, which builds self-esteem, said Akin.
Akin got the idea to have an Eastview dog after he successfully brought a dog in to help students at Sioux Trail Elementary in Burnsville, where he was previously principal.
He asked Eastview parents to complete a survey about the idea before proposing it. About 80 percent approved, he said.
One objection he's heard is that the district shouldn't spend public funds on the dog, but the cost of obtaining and caring for Hero — about $5,000 — will be paid for by donations, he said.
Another concern is related to allergies and asthma, he said. The Minnesota Department of Health raised the asthma concern. The school will be monitoring visits to the nurse's office when Hero is there, he said. The dog will stay out of classrooms where kids have allergies, Akin said.
Other parents have said that their kids are afraid of dogs, but "no one, staff or students, will ever be told that they have to work with the dog," he said.
School board members and the superintendent have said they could see expanding the program in the future, he said.
Michelle Quirk, an Eastview parent of two, said she's excited for Hero's arrival. She has a second-grader with special needs who is nervous about reading aloud, but has enjoyed reading to dogs at the library, she said.
"The dogs enjoy it just as much as the children do," she said. "They love the chance to learn, to train and to be helpful."