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Furry friend

In an attempt to improve the reading experience for students, Eagle View Elementary School called in a furry, four-legged expert. For the past two weeks, an Eagle View third-grade class has used the services of certified "reader dog" Bandit, a 4-...

Bandit the reading dog sits attentively as Eagle View third-grader Isaac Baumann reads to him in the school hallway on Monday, Oct. 19. Photo by Dan Determan
Bandit the reading dog sits attentively as Eagle View third-grader Isaac Baumann reads to him in the school hallway on Monday, Oct. 19. Photo by Dan Determan

In an attempt to improve the reading experience for students, Eagle View Elementary School called in a furry, four-legged expert.

For the past two weeks, an Eagle View third-grade class has used the services of certified "reader dog" Bandit, a 4-year-old Shetland Sheepdog owned by Pequot Lakes resident Janet Hennies.

Bandit recently became a certified therapy dog after Hennies, who owns and trains agility dogs, noticed his calm demeanor and sweet disposition perfectly suited him for that role, saying it would be a disservice to ignore his "special gift."

"When we got him, we just thought we had a new agility dog ... but we also clearly found out that he has such a soft nature," Hennies said. "Usually agility dogs are high-strung and dogmatic. To have this dog - and I have had lots of dogs - that just wants to love, wants people to pet him and treats everybody as if he is madly in love with them is wonderful. He is just a sweet soul."

Therapy dogs are used, often in hospitals and nursing homes, to provide a soothing presence for patients and residents. Spending time with these dogs can improve cardiovascular health, lessen the effects of depression and anxiety and help children overcome speech and emotional disorders.

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"My understanding is you can see amazing benefits, especially in nursing homes, in that they bring so much joy and can change up the scene of someone's daily routine when they get to interact with a dog," Hennies said.

In the classroom setting as a reader dog, Bandit should help students improve their literacy skills by letting them read to him in a non-judgemental environment.

When Hennies informed the school that she would like to volunteer her time - and her dog - to aid in the classroom, third-grade teacher Deanne Trottier jumped at the opportunity.

"Our principal told us (teachers) that Janet had hoped to come in for her and Bandit's first official visit, which was sort of his last step to getting certified ... and I was the first one to get my hand up," Trottier said, laughing. "We had him come in and Janet introduced him and explained what he does and his testing procedures, and the kids were kind of fascinated by what he had to do."

Bandit's time in Trottier's class is used as incentive for students to be active in the class' take-home reading program. Students who put effort into the program get the chance to sit in the hall and read to Bandit, who will either sit beside them or sit on their laps and listen attentively.

"At first, I chose two students that I knew were working really hard on their take-home reading," Trottier said. "Of course, they were kind of envied by everyone else."

Though Bandit is not the only reader dog at Eagle View - Riley, owned by Dan Wilm, began helping in the classroom last year - the school's administration has seen the merits of a dog's presence in a student's day.

"So many of our students need that calming aspect that comes with petting a dog, and the love and general acceptance that an animal can give," Principal Melissa Hesch said. "Being able to work on something that might not be a strength for them while petting a dog can alleviate some of that anxiety and allows them to try. "

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Part of Bandit's certification process included training him to keep his composure in "extreme situations" in order to keep himself safe as well as those around him, like nursing home residents and school children.

"A classroom can have a lot of chaos," Hennies said. "A lot of dogs would be triggered with all the noises and jumping and high voices, but he has to keep his cool ... His goal is to provide emotional support. He is so calming that not only would he be beneficial as a reader dog - which is more of an incentive program for kids - but he would also be a really good dog for children that need something to calm them down."

In the future, Hennies hopes to bring Bandit into area nursing homes as well, but for now their work at Eagle View has been appreciated by Trottier and her students.

"It has been very motivating, because the kids really want the chance to read to Bandit," Trottier said. "I think, for some kids, reading isn't always a pleasant experience ... and for those kids to have this motivator to make reading an enjoyable time, hopefully that feeling will carry over. It is very exciting for students."

Dan Determan has been a reporter for the Echo Journal since 2014, primarily covering sports at Pequot Lakes and Pine River-Backus
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