LUVERNE — Luverne Elementary has employed a canine for its school counseling team.

Ally, a 7-year-old golden retriever/Labrador mix, officially began her therapy dog duties with the school last month by visiting each of Luverne Elementary’s 25 kindergarten through fifth-grade classrooms.

“The kids were really excited,” said school counselor Marie Atkinson-Smeins, who is also Ally’s owner and handler.

During December’s initial visits, Atkinson-Smeins explained to the classes of excited children the effect their actions could have on Ally. They learned how to approach a dog, which Atkinson-Smeins explained should only be done if the owner gives permission. Kids who were interested took turns approaching Ally, allowing her to sniff their hand before being pet so not to overwhelm her.

Atkinson-Smeins wants to proceed slowly, but there may be other options in the future such as visiting the classrooms as a reward.

From now on, Ally will be used more as a tool on a limited basis during one-on-one counseling sessions. Atkinson-Smeins said Ally’s presence in the room brings peace and calms children.

“I think that some kids are able to verbalize pretty easily, but others it’s a little more difficult,” Atkinson-Smeins said. “(Kids) pet her and it seems like they feel more comfortable, more willing to share.”

Luverne Elementary school counselor Marie Atkinson-Smeins introduces her 7-year-old golden retriever/Labrador mix Ally to elementary students, which will begin seeing more of Ally during one-on-one counseling sessions. (Submitted photo)
Luverne Elementary school counselor Marie Atkinson-Smeins introduces her 7-year-old golden retriever/Labrador mix Ally to elementary students, which will begin seeing more of Ally during one-on-one counseling sessions. (Submitted photo)

Ally has been Atkinson-Smeins’ family dog since she was about six months old. Inspired by the use of therapy dogs in other schools across Minnesota, Atkinson-Smeins saw an opportunity with Ally.

“She’s at a point in her life where she’s more mature and calm,” Atkinson-Smeins said about her mild-tempered dog.

To become a certified therapy dog, Ally received obedience training from certified trainer David Crawford of Midwest Training and Country Suites in Beaver Creek. She was able to pass the behavioral test and became certified in Alliance of Therapy Dogs’ alternative program in 2018.

Although her training was complete, Ally wasn’t immediately ready to begin her job at the school.

In July, Atkinson-Smeins approached the Luverne Board of Education about the work Ally could do in the school. In September, the board formally adopted Policy 808 - Therapy Dogs in School. Ally is also insured.

Atkinson-Smeins abides by the handling guidelines, keeping Ally on a four-foot leash and using a gentle leader, which gives owners more control and promotes best behavior.

Atkinson-Smeins made parents aware of Ally’s work in the school, giving them an option to decline interaction between their child and Ally due to allergies or fear of dogs. Only two declined interaction due to allergies.

Atkinson-Smeins had admittedly been anxious to see how well the kids and Ally would react to one another. But Ally and the kids hit it off, reassuring Atkinson-Smeins that she’d made the right move.

“I’ve been very pleased with how (Ally) is and how she interacts,” she said. “It affirmed to me that I did the right thing.”

Before Ally was cleared to begin working in school, she visited the Minnesota Veterans Home in Luverne. Atkinson-Smeins said the residents responded well to her.

“The residents love her,” she said. “They enjoy petting her.”

Even though Ally is now fulfilling what Atkinson-Smeins had planned to utilize her training, she and Ally plan to make periodic visits to the veterans home.