- Associated Press - Sunday, May 21, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - There’s a rock star walking the halls of Christel House Academy West. Everyone wants to talk to him, touch him and hug him.

Maynard West is new to Christel House, but already he’s the most popular guy in school. The kids swarm him at recess and jockey for a spot close to him in the classroom.

“Everyone would like to think that they are his favorite; he makes you feel like you are his best friend,” said Debby Nauta, Christel House instructional coach and Maynard’s “person.”

Maynard is no ordinary student. He’s a 2½-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix who has been bred and trained to be a service dog. But he’s so much more. He’s an instructional assistant, a friend, a comforter.

There are 260-some students enrolled at the west-side charter school, and for some, school can be an escape from difficult situations at home. Like any good dog, Maynard can absorb some of the children’s pain and calm their anxieties. “He has helped some kids through some sad times,” Nauta said.

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“He can do in five minutes what would take me 30 minutes to accomplish just because he’s Maynard,” she said. Kids anxious over ISTEP testing have needed to give their favorite dog a reassuring hug to quiet their nerves.

Despite his big brown eyes and gentle demeanor, he’s not just a shoulder to cry on, though he’s good at that.

“He’s built to make people happy and make them feel calm, secure and safe and to assist them,” Nauta said. He works as a facility dog, which means he’s trained to help staff and students who might need a paw to open and close doors, turn lights on and off and pick up things.

One of the things he picks up every day is people’s moods.

“He’s just as therapeutic for the staff as he is for the students,” said school secretary Mary MitchelI, as Maynard made his way through the office on his rounds recently.

A drawing of Maynard West, the newest staff member

A drawing of Maynard West, the newest staff member at Christel House Academy West, hangs outside the office of Handler and Instructional Coach Debby Nauta, April 13, 2017. Maynard is a Canine Companion for Independence Facility Dog who works with students and staff at the school. (Photo: Michelle)

“He just makes you smile,” Nauta said as she nuzzled the dog’s face with her own. “Look at that sweet face; he melts your heart. Don’t you just love him?”

Second-graders Ashley Espinosa and Eric Lopez do. “He makes us feel happy,” Ashley said. Both children giggle with abandon as Maynard cozies up next to them in the media center, especially when he plants a wet kiss on Eric’s face.

About 98 percent of the school’s kindergarten through fourth-grade students (they are adding fifth grade next year) receive free or reduced lunch. Most of the students come from the neighborhoods of Haughville, Stringtown and Mars Hill, some of the most depressed areas of the city, said Principal Richard Hunt.

Maynard brings smiles to our students, whether they’re sad or mad or hurt or frustrated.” He can change their mood in a few seconds and that translates into improved learning time and improved morale, Hunt said. “While there’s no data yet in the short time he’s been here, anytime you can add something that shortens the time a child has to be out of class, it helps. It’s an added piece to make our students feel more special.”

Nauta has been working on getting a facility dog for her school since shortly after Christel House West opened at 55 N. Tibbs Ave. three years ago. She’d never owned a dog herself but saw what a difference a canine could make in a school setting.

She began working with Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit that breeds and trains dogs for assistance roles, working with a network of volunteers around the country. Dogs who make the grade are intelligent, display an even temperament and are not easily distracted, say by a passing squirrel.

Once Nauta’s application was accepted, she was put on a two-year wait list, then visited an Ohio facility for a week to be matched with a dog. That’s when her love affair with Maynard began.

The 66-pound pup lives with her and her family and goes everywhere she goes. When she first brought him home, her kids were uneasy. “They looked at him like he was a grizzly bear,” she said, laughing about it now. Of all the dogs in the world, she told her kids, “this dog is not going to hurt you.”

Today, Maynard is a beloved member of two families - his family at home and his school family. He has his own Facebook page, which serves as a school newsletter of sorts. He works hard every day, but when he needs a rest, especially after tolerating dozens of tiny hands petting him at recess, he heads for his bed in Nauta’s office, which is decorated with photos of Maynard as a puppy and on the day he “graduated” from doggy college.

“Everybody loves him,” Nauta said. “He has been nothing but a positive.”

There is no charge to receive an assistance dog from Canine Companions for Independence, but there is a lengthy approval process. Volunteers absorb most of the costs of raising and training the dogs.

Molly Schulz, with Canine Companions, said school placements are popular because the dogs help encourage and motivate students in everything from classroom tasks to social skills.

“It is one thing for a child to walk out onto the playground alone; it is another to walk onto the playground with a four-legged friend by your side,” she said. “No matter what task or social situation the facility dog is helping with, they provide every child a wagging tail and an eagerness to help.”

To learn more, visit www.cci.org.

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