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Students love this teacher's pet

Nelson, a 2-year-old black Labrador, sits quietly in front of the Ashland Middle School classroom beside special education teacher Janet Voorhies as she instructs her students.

His eyes, like hers, move attentively to whichever student is speaking or raising a hand.

"He's a good boy," said Julian Hill, a 10-year-old fifth-grader in the class, bending down to pat the polite Lab on the back during recess. "My favorite thing about him is his eyes "… he helps make me calm."

And that's Nelson's job.

He is the first program-assistance dog to be trained and placed into a professional position by Central Point-based Dogs for the Deaf. The organization has been rescuing dogs from animal shelters and training them as assistance dogs for the hearing-impaired and others with special needs since 1977 and is completely funded by donations.

Nelson was taken in by Dogs for the Deaf after another dog-training organization, Guide Dogs for the Blind, determined he was not a good fit as a guide dog. "It's because he has a sensitive trachea," said Carrie Brooks, Nelson's former trainer at Dogs for the Deaf. "Everything else about him is perfect."

Brooks said the Labrador's sensitive trachea made it unsafe to put a harness around him and expect him to perform some of the tasks that guide dogs are required to perform — such as taking a hard jerk from the leash if they sit down to keep their owners from walking into a hazard.

Before turning Nelson over to Voorhies and her class, Brooks spent about five months working with him, she said. Aside from teaching him basic obedience training and house breaking, Brooks took Nelson into "every public place I could think of," testing his ability to stay calm in hectic situations.

"He's kind of just a go-with-the-flow type of guy," she said. "I always knew, in the back of my head, that he would be perfect for something like this."

Voorhies uses Nelson in a variety of ways with her fifth- to eighth-grade class of nine students in the Grizzly Peak Program at the middle school.

Students who are afraid to read out loud in front of the class are just fine reading aloud to Nelson, she said, and he sets a good example by always behaving.

What he brings has an immeasurable importance, she said, in providing "calmness and confidence for the kids."

"He's already an incredible asset to the class," she said. "If students are feeling frustrated, we'll stretch like he does, or I'll say 'Let's yawn like Nelson,' and we'll give a big yawn. Sometimes we shake like the dog to get a little energy out.

"The kids just absolutely adore him," she added.

Nelson is also trained to "go touch," said Voorhies. She uses the command when students aren't paying attention or need a little pick-me-up, and Nelson will walk over and touch them with his nose.

"Sometimes he rests his head on my leg," said Daisy Guardado, a 14-year-old eighth-grader, who happily admitted to having Nelson call on her a few times. "I'm really going to miss him when I go to high school."

Robin Dickson, president of Dogs for the Deaf, said Nelson is a great example of how program-assistance dogs can be used successfully in a professional environment.

"We've been promoting it for the last year or so, trying to get the word out so that more people know this service is available," she said. "We can train dogs to help various types of professionals."

Dickson said a program assistance dog would be a great match for a counselor's office, a nursing home or any other professional environment where there are people who have special needs.

"It's not just limited to teachers," she said.

Voorhies said she thinks it's the natural animal connection people have with dogs that makes their presence so effective when they are trained correctly.

"I'm really excited about the future with him," she said. "It's just perfect for what I was looking to accomplish."

Sam Wheeler is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.

Ashland Middle School student Rebeca Novarrette Lopez hugs Nelson, a program-assistance dog from Dogs for the Deaf who helps maintain calm in a class of special needs students. - Bob Pennell