With school year over, special ed. teacher kicks service dog effort into higher gear

by Jim Boyle

The school year at Salk Middle School has just ended, but one teacher’s quest to improve student’s classroom experience for the next school year has only just begun.

Mary Ostmoe, a teacher of middle school students with developmental disabilities and kids on the autism spectrum, will spend her summer raising money to fund the screening and training costs of a service dog named Olaf.

If she can come up with $16,500, she will become the handler for the specially trained 5-year-old retriever. She has tapped friends, family and colleagues for the first $2,000.

She’s now reaching out the community to welcome Olaf in as a calming agent to her classroom and facilitator of socialization that students with Autism Spectrum Disorders often shy away from.

Ostmoe is working with Pawsitivity Service Dogs, a St. Paul-based non-profit. The outfit trains and places service dogs with children and adults with disabilities

Olaf has been thoroughly vetted to make sure he shows no signs of aggression or other traits that would disqualify him from his future line of work.

His training will continue this summer and may even include a few stops in Elk River while Ostmoe teaches special needs students in a summer school program.

Olaf will be at Salk as early as this week, but his future handler has a long way to go before she can promise students the dog will be a regular in her Salk classroom come this fall.

“I am so hopeful,” Ostmoe said.

Her journey began last October when she started looking into service dog training outfits. Once she had an airtight case, she presented her idea to a school district official. She was granted permission from the district this spring to fund raise.

The Elk River woman, who grew up in Eagan and started her teaching career in Apple Valley before coming to Salk 10 years ago, got her idea for a service dog from her own students.

One girl with autism that she works with would ask for her dog when she got overstimulated and agitated at school. A light bulb went off when a second student asked for his dog during a difficult stretch of a school day, too.

Ostmoe began researching the idea and found science to be on her side. Apparently research has shown that service dog interventions provided by nice, calm dogs can lower cortisol levels and increase endorphins in the brain, literally changing the chemical makeup of the brain as well as decreasing anxious behavior.

Service dogs also provide a natural conversation starter piece for students to benefit from as they grow accustomed to social interactions with their peers.

“Even my regular education homeroom kids are excited as a can be,” she said.

Ostmoe told her husband, Eric Ostmoe, an Elk River graduate and English language learner teacher at Elk River High School, about her idea, and he said “I was crazy.”

But he has been supportive and has agreed to allow Olaf be part of their family if things go as hoped. The Ostmoes have three children, ages 6, 5 and 2.

If Mary Ostmoe can’t come up with enough funds, Olaf would go to another cause and another handler. Mary Ostmoe doesn’t plan on letting that happen. She’s thinking positive.

Any leftovers will go to launch an effort to fund a service dog for the autism program at Twin Lakes Elementary School.

Ostmoe hopes to have Olaf training with her while she’s working at the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights, or PACER, in Bloomington this summer. PACER works to expand opportunities and enhance the quality of life of children and young adults with disabilities and their families, based on the concept of parents helping parents.

Ostmoe believes businesses and the community will rally around her effort. She said in her applications she wants to foster a sense of belonging and acceptance in her classroom. Students will take the responsibility of dog care while Olaf is in school, doing chores like vacuuming, brushing, etc. This includes students with autism.

“Every student with autism is so different, but if Olaf can help them calm down and get to a place where their brain isn’t racing, it will be worth all the work,” she said.

Through all of this, Ostmoe believes reluctant learners might be more apt to enjoy school and get better at socializing.
“Many students on the spectrum relate to animals more than humans,” she said. “I am hoping Olaf will help me bridge the difference with my students.”

For more information on Pawsitivity Service Dogs visit http://pawsitivityservicedogs.com.

Donations are being accepted at Salk Middle School.  Checks can be made out to Salk Middle School as long as they include ASD Dog in the memo on the check.