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The ‘dogtor’ is in: Detroit Lakes students benefit from time spent with therapy dog

Jack, a therapy dog, is quite a social creature, visiting 10 to 12 students a day three days a week in the Detroit Lakes school district. Here he's with a student and his owner, Pam Kruger. Kaysey Price / Forum News Service

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- Pam Kruger is enjoying her retirement from teaching elementary school in Detroit Lakes — and so are her former students. This is the second year the retired teacher has brought her pup, Jack the Shiloh Shepherd, around the Detroit Lakes schools, offering one-on-one time with him to students who may benefit from a furry friend.

“When I was teaching, I knew someday I had to retire, and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” said Kruger.

After spending so many years impacting children in the classroom, she found the gig hard to give up and thought of a way to keep a piece of her career alive.

“I thought … to train a dog to be a therapy dog and come back to the schools and let the kids read to him,” said Kruger.

And that’s just what she did.

Kruger spent months searching for the perfect puppy that would suit her cause and, after a few disappointing dead ends, she finally landed on a breeder in Oklahoma who was selling Shiloh Shepherd pups, just the kind she wanted.

“We’ve always had German Shepherds, but I had read about Shiloh Shepherds and did some research and decided that this time we were going to do a Shiloh,” she said, adding that they’re a little bit bigger than classic German Shepherds and a little bit softer — inside and out. “They’re bred for herding, but they’re also more bred for service work, therapy, companionship.”

Jack is especially a softy, according to his breeder and an evaluator who tested his demeanor.

“In the Shiloh world, the puppies are all tested … for their temperament,” said Kruger.

A test showed that out of all the puppies in his litter, Jack was best suited to be a therapy dog.

And from the time Kruger picked up Jack in Oklahoma to the time they got back to Detroit Lakes, she says he’s been “a school boy,” both in puppy classes and the literal schools.

“We got back from Oklahoma, and I was the targeted services coordinator for summer school, so we had summer school right away,” said Kruger, adding, “So he started coming into the schools when he was just eight weeks old.”

It was a chance for Jack to get used to the kids and the kids to get used to Jack.

“A lot of the kids know him from when he was a little, tiny pup,” said Kruger.

As for Jack, he’s taken to the gig quite happily, the big boy happily rolls over for belly scratches every chance he gets — though it’s not all play for Jack. He listens intently while the elementary students read to him or students at the ALC talk to him about how their week is going. He’s on his best behavior, thanks to all his training.

“He’s had his puppy kindergarten. He’s had beginning obedience, advanced obedience. He’s had two agility classes. He’s passed his K-9 Good Citizen Test, and right now we’re in K-9 Good Citizen Advanced Classes,” said Kruger, adding that she’s hoping to get him officially labeled a therapy dog this spring or summer. “I would have to take a class (to get him certified) and, when I feel he’s ready to be tested, they have certain times that they test, and they have certain things that he has to do to pass the test. Then, every two years, he has to be retested.”

It’s a journey, but Kruger says she’s finding quite a few teaching opportunities yet along the way.

“I find, through training him, I can find life lessons for kids that are struggling with academics,” said Kruger. “We’ve talked about how he didn’t pass his first K-9 Good Citizen Test, and I had to find people to help me with it.”

She says students are really surprised when they hear Jack struggles sometimes with his training, and she says it’s a good example for them to see someone — or some dog — work through that struggle.

“I can talk to the kids about how he and I don’t always get things done right away, and it can be really hard and really scary, but we work through it,” she said, adding that, in the end, “He spreads joy, and that just makes me happy. This is what makes retirement fun.”