ORLEANS — A newly enrolled “student” at the Nauset Middle School is a precious not-yet 2-year-old who’s already a graduate of a school of higher learning. He’s not only canny, but canine.
Cooper is a black Labrador Retriever that’ll turn 2 on May 7. He’ll help out around the school, but especially in the special education classes.
Theresa Lane, the assistant in special needs at the middle school, recalled a former principal had a dog at the school, but he was still rambunctious, hopping up on the kids and acting like a typical pup. Cooper is much different. He is from NEADS (National Education for Assistance Dog Services) and has trained for 18 months.
Lane has also trained, although not for as long.
“I went and trained for a week-and-a-half to learn all the commands with the dog. Say ‘lap’ and he sits on a lap. If you say, ‘visit,’ it puts its head on your lap, “Lane said. “He knows a lot of different commands besides obedience. He can fetch a box of tissues, close a door, pick up things kids drop. It’s quite intense.”
NEADS is based in Princeton and specializes in trained service dogs of all sorts; for veterans, adults and children with disabilities, emotional support, or counseling, courthouse assistance and more. The group favors Labrador Retrievers, dogs that are smart but friendly and eager to learn – just like the other students at the middle school.
“They do have some labradoodles as well, if people are allergic to dogs,” Lane said. “They are trained from birth. They all don’t make the cut.”
Dogs that don’t graduate from the NEADS program become family pets, not that Cooper isn’t a pet. He goes home with Lane and will spend the weekends and summers with her. But he has a full-time job, as well, with the school department. Lane also had to make the cut as a potential owner.
“I had to apply two years ago for a dog,” she said. “It’s a $50,000 process. I went through an interview where they ask what the dog will be used for. They OK’d it.”
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Lane was also required to raise $8,000 toward the total training cost. She worked with the middle school, generating buzz on Facebook. When she was $3,000 short of the goal, a donor paid the balance.
Training for lane began Feb. 28, at Princeton. She took a full day of classes before meeting Cooper and then stayed overnight so she could work and bond with Cooper all day long.
“He’s very friendly, very obedient. You just say hello and get his tail wagging and he greets all the kids. He’ll stay for hours. The kids absolutely love him,” Lane explained. “They say ‘Cooper, Cooper’ and want to pet him.”
In addition to special education classes, he makes his rounds to other classes. While all the children enjoy Cooper, it’s the special education students who are his primary audience. He helps calm students who are having a hard time.
“Cooper has been a blessing for these students,” she said. “He goes to classes and sits next to them and cuddles a bit. It’s like a de-stresser. Everyone is on edge because of Covid and wearing masks. When the kids pet the dog, you can see their whole body relax.”