- Associated Press - Saturday, January 30, 2016

ST CLOUD, Minn. (AP) - Meg Schneider’s teachers say she’s more mature and doing better in school lately. Her parents notice that Meg, who has some right side disability, vision impairment and complications from cerebral palsy, walks more upright, has a more upbeat attitude and is more apt to want to go to activities outside the home than in months past.

The difference, they’re all convinced, is Quest.

He’s a 2-year-old black lab who, since October, has accompanied Meg to her classes. An 18-year-old junior, Meg attends Cathedral High School but spends most mornings at Apollo High School for special needs classes in math, reading, keyboarding and transitions.

“He’s my best friend,” Meg said, seated at her desk at Apollo while Quest sits silently nearby. “I really bond with him. He’s with me everywhere I go.”

The St. Cloud Times (https://on.sctimes.com/1KbHoY5 ) reports that Quest wears a harness that allows Meg to grab hold and get support as she walks. The dog also will pick up items she drops. He can carry her lunch, class materials and computer and can assist with other tasks, such as helping her get her shoes off. While the reaction of classmates has ranged from wanting to pet Quest (they can’t) to fear (which Meg says isn’t necessary), one of Meg’s teachers puts it in perhaps the best perspective.

“It’s been flawless,” said Emily Raboin, a special ed instructor at Apollo. “Most of the time, I forget he’s here.”

To get to this point, the St. Cloud school district had to develop a policy for service dogs. Carol Potter, executive director of student services/special education, said she’s unaware of anyone needing one before. This year, Meg and an elementary student at Oak Hill Community School began working with service animals. And just this month the school board enacted a policy consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Meg, and Quest addressed the school board and answered questions at the most recent monthly board meeting. The policy provides for dogs or miniature horses trained for the benefit of an individual with a disability - including those that are physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or mental. Animals whose sole function is to provide emotional support, comfort, therapy and companionship are not considered service dogs by the district.

“Basically, the animal has to be able to perform work or a task that helps the handler have independent access to rooms in the school,” Potter said. “We want to welcome service animals because, for those who need them, we’re leveling the playing field.”

Raboin and other instructors did a lot of pre-teaching about assistance dogs in advance of Quest’s arrival, to prepare students and minimize distraction.

“Meg is in total control of him and, since she got Quest there’s just been a huge step up in her maturity,” Raboin said. “The dog could be the key to her independence, so we couldn’t be more pleased with how it’s gone. Maybe it will become more common for other students who could use this sort of assistance. The benefits sure seem to outweigh the costs.”

Quest was trained and obtained through Can Do Canines, a New Hope-based nonprofit provider of assistance dogs. Paul Schwarzkopf, marketing and communications coordinator for Can Do Canines, said it costs about $25,000 to raise and train an assistance dog but the animals are provided free for those who qualify. Schwarzkopf said there are about 180 people on a waiting list to get dogs, and Can Do Canines trained 46 in 2015 - one of which was Quest.

“We hope to expand our capability in the future, but we can’t just turn out dogs,” Schwarzkopf said. “We’ve got to make sure they’re the right fit for the people who need them.”

Joanne Schneider, Meg’s mother, said the process to get an assistance dog took about six years. Initially the family worked with an agency in Georgia, but a year ago a Can Do Canines visited the Schneiders’ home. Soon after, Meg made the cut to receive a dog.

When she got him in October, she traveled to the Twin Cities three days a week for intensive training.

As his handler, Meg is responsible for his care and supervision, feeding and cleaning up after him. Fortunately, that’s not much of an issue during the school day.

The Schneiders, who live in St. Joseph, fenced in part of their yard to meet a requirement to get Quest. As soon as Meg climbs off the bus, he helps her up a snowblown path in the yard and finally gets to relieve himself inside the fence. Once he’s out of harness and in the house, he’s not much different from any other 2-year-old black lab. He plays with the Schneiders’ other dog, Leo, a 10-year-old sheltie. But when Meg calls, Quest responds. No one else is allowed to give him commands.

“He came to us kind of like a car, with the basic instructions but you have to learn from there,” said Kurt Schneider, Meg’s father. “We feel like we won the lottery. He’s so doggone smart, he’s teaching us. … It’s just really cool the way he’s helping Meg, and I think one day soon he’ll help her to live on her own.”

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Information from: St. Cloud Times, https://www.sctimes.com

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