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K9 Connection links students with shelter dogs in aim for better lives for both kids and canines

The K9 Connection program partners ninth and 10th graders from the Area Education Center at Brainerd Public Schools with shelter dogs at the Babinski Foundation, creating responsible, educated students and talented, obedient dogs.

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Area Education Center students Blaine Peveto, left, Kard Sheperd and Tucker Berry play with Salt, a 4-month-old German shepherd/Chinese Shar Pei mix, Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, at the Babinski Foundation, during a session of the K9 Connection program. The program pairs high school students with shelter dogs to help both kids and canines learn valuable skills. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
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PEQUOT LAKES — Six families who adopted dogs from the Babinski Foundation in the last month have high school students, in part, to thank for their well-behaved new friends.

The K9 Connection program partners ninth and 10th graders from the Area Education Center at Brainerd Public Schools with shelter dogs at the Babinski Foundation, with the goal of creating responsible, educated students and talented, obedient dogs.

JoDee Moen, a teacher at the Area Education Center, proposed the program after having participated in a similar one in California.

“The progress that kids and dogs made in this program out in California was amazing and just a wonderful thing. And it’s been my dream since moving back here 10 years ago to be able to implement this program in one of the school’s I’ve been at,” Moen said during the training session Monday, Oct. 18, at the Babinski Foundation in Pequot Lakes. “... To me, Babinski’s just perfect because they do so many good things for the dogs, the cats, the animals, the whole community, and they’re always kind of looking for new ways to outreach.”

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Donna Sutton, the shelter’s executive director, was on board immediately.

“It’s just such a great idea to pair dogs with teens,” Sutton said. “They help each other. It helps the teen gain confidence and responsibility and empathy. And it gives the dog — it prepares them for adoption down the road and hopefully soon. This is amazing because some of these dogs have been here quite a while.”


"I’ve always loved animals. Animals have been my safe haven."

— Niko DeRosier


Bentley the chocolate lab was adopted last week, after Tucker Berry showed the prospective family some of the commands he taught the dog since the beginning of the four-week program.

Seeing Bentley get adopted was both rewarding and difficult for Berry, after developing a strong bond with the pooch.

“We built such a strong chemistry and worked incredibly well together,” Berry said, noting he was incredibly proud of Bentley.

Niko DeRosier also has a sense of pride at knowing two of the dogs they worked with in the K9 Connection program were adopted. While others were continuing with training commands during the last week of the program Monday, DeRosier hung out with Mac, a docile black cocker spaniel who is blind after having his eyes removed.

“I’ve always loved animals. Animals have been my safe haven,” DeRosier said, noting they would like to work with animals at someplace like the Babinski Foundation in the future.

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Niko DeRosier, a 10th grader at the Area Education Center in Brainerd, spends time with Mac, a blind cocker spaniel available for adoption at the Babinski Foundation in Pequot Lakes, during a session of the K9 Connection program Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“Every dog is different,” DeRosier added of what they’ve learned throughout the program. “They all have their own ways of learning, just like humans do. They’re extremely smart, and people underestimate how smart they are.”

While the dogs have been learning commands like sit, stay, heal and come, the students have been learning not only about being a responsible pet owner but also about various careers with animals. They’ve visited with local law enforcement officers and their working canines and got an idea of how Babinski Foundation Marketing Coordinator Maren Martin works with social media to get the shelter’s message out and make sure the animals find good homes.


"It’s just such a great idea to pair dogs with teens. They help each other."

— Donna Sutton, Babinski Donna Sutton, Babinski Foundation executive director.


Martin walked the students through her daily use of platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok Monday and asked for ideas from them about what else the shelter could do to encourage adoptions.

The ideas — like creating TikTok videos where the dogs appear to have human arms — did not disappoint, nor has the students’ progress with their pups.

“It’s actually pretty incredible,” Martin said. “We didn’t have the bar set too high in terms of what the dogs were going to be able to end up doing. In the end it’s more about teaching responsibility and patience and that kind of thing — a sense of accomplishment for the students. But we’ve actually been so pleased with everything that the dogs have learned, too. It’s great for the dogs and the students, both. So we’ve been very excited.”

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For Jessica Schwimmer, lead trainer for the program, seeing the students connect with the dogs is heartwarming. The Area Education Center serves a variety of students in a non-traditional setting, with smaller class sizes, one-on-one support and learning tailored to each student’s needs.

“Dogs don’t care who you are,” Schwimmer said. “They’ll love you no matter what, and it’s awesome that these kids are able to form that bond and have something to look forward to when they come for the week.”

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Elijah Moore, a ninth grade student at the Area Education Center in Brainerd, teaches dog Bart to jump Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, at the Babinski Foundation in Pequot Lakes. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

The end of Monday’s session saw the students having a fun time, using treats as motivation to their dogs to jump over a hurdle. Four-month-old Salt, a German shepherd/Chinese Shar Pei mix, joined in just for the fun of it but was more intent on treats and belly rubs than on learning any new skills.

The kids and their pooches then practiced for their graduation celebration Wednesday, Oct. 20, when Berry would be reunited with Bentley for a short time, and the rest of the canines could show off all their newfound knowledge.

“It’s just win/win across the board,” Moen said. “The kids win. Babinski wins. The dogs win. It’s just been a beautiful thing. It’s like a match made in heaven.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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