EAGLE POINT — The school district’s most recent hire is a hairy one, but the kids love him.
Dallas, a 1-year-old terrier mix, started his new job last week assisting teacher Sean Dugan-Strout in his fifth-grade classroom at Hillside Elementary School.
After being rescued by a shelter in Fresno, California, Dallas was taken to the Southern Oregon Humane Society, where his stoic temperament caught the attention of Dogs for the Deaf. He underwent six months of training with trainer Jenny Nickelson before going home with Dugan-Strout, his new handler.
“I’d always wanted a dog and had heard of the benefits of having a dog around students and his calming effect,” said Dugan-Strout, who volunteered to be Dallas' handler.
By day, Dallas is a classroom assistant and, by night, a family pet.
“He’s a different dog when he comes home,” Dugan-Strout said. “He’s a lot more hyper.”
Wednesday morning, Dallas lounged comfortably on a student’s lap on the floor while she worked on a math assignment.
He’s been trained to “greet” students by resting his head on their lap, sense when students are upset and comfort them. In time, he’ll also be able to redirect them with a nudge if they get distracted in class, Dugan-Strout said.
He’s a calming presence and “works” alongside students, he added.
One boy, Jake Dunlap, 10, shared an instant connection with Dallas.
“He mostly just lays on me,” Dunlap said. “Everybody says a dog is man’s best friend. He doesn’t growl or bark or anything … and if I rub my knee, he climbs up on my lap and sometimes he puts his nose in my face.”
Jake has “severe” attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and struggles to focus on tasks or stay in one spot for any length of time, Dugan-Strout explained in an email.
Dugan-Strout said he noticed how much Jake loved Dallas and decided to pair the boy and the dog for an entire school day.
“Jake finished all of his work for the day — in fact, he did extra and stayed in during recess,” Dugan-Strout said. "He also read with Dallas for a whopping 40 minutes (all while having a laser focus).”
“This is incredible, considering (Jake’s) typical stamina time is about 10 minutes,” he said.
Dogs for the Deaf Training Director John Drach said the nonprofit agency has been training program-assistance dogs for the last five years and has placed about seven of them. Some of the dogs have been placed with counselors and doctors, as well as with teachers at Ashland High School and Helman Elementary School.
There are several special-needs students in Dugan-Strout’s general education classroom, which is a requirement for getting a program-assistance dog, Drach said.
Although Dallas has been given the title of “teacher’s aide,” Dugan-Strout is responsible for the care and costs of Dallas and the upkeep of his training, said Tiffanie Lambert, Eagle Point's director of school improvement, adding that there was no cost to the district.
“It’s fabulous for kids,” she said. “Some kids just relate to dogs. Dogs can be soothing and therapeutic for kids— kids with disabilities and those without.”
School staff also can make arrangements for students in other classrooms to get time with Dallas, Lambert said — if Jake is willing to share his new best friend.
“My mom said my class is a jackpot because we have Pokemon (classroom activities) and a dog,” Jake said.