As students and teachers at Lake Illawarra High School bid farewell to a retiring teacher’s aide, the fact that it’s an eleven-year-old dog only makes him sadder.
Since 2013, Benson, a golden Labrador, has accompanied Ryan Olender to and from school every day as an educational support dog for children with special needs.
Mr Olender, Acting Director of the Harbor Center Special Education Unit, previously worked with Assistance Dogs Australia as a teacher, puppy handler and career so he was a natural fit as lead handler and career of the dog that was trained by them.
“Benson and I have a very special bond,” Mr. Olender said.
“I wouldn’t say we were co-workers as such, we started out that way, but we created a unique bond and you could say he’s my best friend, I guess.”
The cheeky pup
When the National Classroom Dog Recruitment Program first launched in 2013, the concept of therapy animals in schools was fairly new.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about trauma with students and supporting students’ emotional development in the classroom and I thought if therapy dogs are coming into homes why can’t this be done? to support children in a school setting,” Mr. Olender said.
Weighing in at 32 kilograms, Benson is known as the cheeky pup because, says Mr Olender, he’s not perfect and that suits his students just fine.
“There are times when Benson will lose focus, or he will go sniffing the trash can for food creating humor for the students, but he also reaffirms to the students that no one is perfect,” Mr. Older.
“We have a lot of special education students who come to us who may think, ‘I’m different,’ and that’s something a lot of us feel.”
“All humans compare, so when they see Benson isn’t perfect, they recognize they make mistakes too, and that’s okay.”
Benson was the first educational support dog bred by Assistance Dogs Australia – a non-profit organization – and now 20 dogs are placed in schools across the country.
For Mr. Olender, the benefits are immense.
“His presence alone is enough to impact not only the students, but all of our staff, as he brings a sense of calm to the room,” he said.
Mr. Olender thinks having a dog takes away from the formal relationship often established between students and teachers.
“We have a lot of boys in our support unit and for them to show affection, cuddle or show empathy is something you can’t share between two humans in a classroom,” did he declare.
“It’s almost beyond our limits as teachers and our relationship with the students, whereas having a dog there, the student can physically reach out, and that’s considered normal.”
Will the school replace Benson?
Potentially over time.
“In the future, there may be another Benson to follow in his footsteps because Benson is not the only service dog, but there is only one Benson,” Mr. Older.