- Associated Press - Monday, June 23, 2014

EATON RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) - As first introductions go, there was a touch of over excitement as 18-month-old Jazz took to the halls of Greyhound Elementary School with obvious curiosity.

By September, the yellow Labrador retriever will be an official member of the Eaton Rapids Public Schools staff. The Eaton Rapids Board of Education approved the decision late last month to bring in the therapy dog full-time, according to the Lansing State Journal ( https://on.lsj.com/T1tSN3 ).

Jazz was on campus recently to take a stroll through the elementary school, along with trainer Mike Morgan of Mid-Michigan Kennels and her soon-to-be handler Brent Watkins.

Watkins is the district’s special education director and this month he and his family will open their home to Jazz.

The therapy dog will live and work with Watkins, where she will serve as a calming influence on students who need it and a first line of defense against illegal substances in any of the district’s school buildings.

“It’s an ongoing process,” said Mike Morgan, of preparing and training Jazz to serve in the school district. “This isn’t like loading software into a computer. It’s something that has to be worked on and practiced on a regular basis.”

Morgan said Jazz was excited on her June 9 tour but already possesses the temperament to be a wonderful therapy dog.

“You can pet her and love on her and she lets you rub her tummy,” he said. “Obedience, being very social are important. She’s already got good social skills. She’s very loving and very friendly and likes affection so it’s going to tie together well with the kids.”

Those traits can be built on, said Morgan, who has been training dogs for over two decades. Over the summer that’s exactly what will happen - at a minimal cost to the district.

District Superintendent Bill DeFrance said school officials have been discussing how to bring a therapy dog into the schools for a year.

“There are some kids who might just need a little TLC,” said DeFrance. He said the animals can be a steady, dependable presence for students who suffer from anxiety or who are struggling in class or at home. “If this dog can have any kind of impact on making a student’s day better this is huge for us.”

Costs associated with training and caring for a therapy dog can range anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000, Morgan said.

Jazz’s training, care and medical costs are being donated to the district, courtesy of Morgan. The Eaton Rapids resident’s business Mid-Michigan Kennels has been utilizing the district’s vacant Northwestern Elementary property to train dogs for police and military service for the past decade.

When Morgan heard about the district’s need for a dog he offered Jazz, agreed to provide the necessary training at no cost and plans to supply the animal’s food as well.

“This district has supported Mid-Michigan Kennels for years in allowing me to use the school building that’s closed to run my police dog classes. I’ve gotten nothing but support out of the district since 1997 when I started my kennel and this was really a nice opportunity for me to get to pay it back,” he said.

Vet services free of charge during the dog’s service life have also been donated by Dr. Bethany Steele at Caring Animal Hospital in Holt, said Morgan.

Watkins, who himself will go through training as Jazz’s handler, said the gesture from both Morgan and Steele will be invaluable to the district when Jazz begins working with students in the fall.

“The generosity is unbelievable,” he said. “The kids are going to benefit and for him to give this kind of commitment, it’s an amazing opportunity.”

Watkins said Jazz will have a daily schedule and will likely spend time in every building throughout the week, both in the classroom and in the hallways. She will also be used to detect if illegal drugs are present in the school buildings.

“It doesn’t matter where the kid’s coming from or if they have a disability,” said Watkins, of the students that Jazz will spend time with. “We’re going to use the dog however we possibly can in the district. There won’t be any limitations on that.”

DeFrance said Jazz’s initial training should be complete by September. “The goal is the dog will be a member of Eaton Rapids schools’ population in the fall,” he said. “You could actually call her a staff member.”


Information from: Lansing State Journal, https://www.lansingstatejournal.com

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