Ben Biazo is pretty popular around Rolling Meadows High School, especially when he’s accompanied by Ralph, a Bulldog/Beagle mix. Together, they offer pet therapy to students and faculty alike during testing times, at events, like football and basketball games, and even during hospital visits.

Jay Reed, center, conducts dog therapy training with student handlers.

He’s not alone. Ben is among 32 people at Rolling Meadows — including nine students — and 24 dogs, who are certified through the school’s unique dog therapy training program. The dogs are small and large, purebred and rescues, young and old.

The class is part of the Agriculture Pathway classes that began in 2019, with the help of Jay Reed, of the Masonic Association of Service and Therapy Dogs (MAST), who conducts the training every semester.

“This program allows students the chance to get hands-on experience with live animals,” says Dr. Kendall Wright, agriculture teacher and Future Farmers of America advisor, “and within this pathway, that is an awesome experience,”

The latest session started this week, with training taking place in the main hallway of the school. Reed, a former firefighter, often trains service dogs for police departments, as well as other therapy dogs, and students are certified as handlers at the end of 10-hours of training.

“For me, I really wanted to be a part of the program because I already loved working with animals,” Ben says, “and I wanted to be able to help people in a more direct way.”

Another student in the program is Grace Haack, who was part of the first cohort in 2019. She works with several of the dogs, but she loves Golden Retrievers and labs the best.

Her favorite events to work are Friday mornings, where handlers and their dogs greet students, but she’s also worked freshmen orientation, blood drives and at Veteran appreciation events.

“I wanted to become a handler mainly for the fact that I like dogs, but don’t have one.” Grace says. “And honestly, I did it to benefit my mental health as well.

Grace Haack with one of her favorite Goldens.

“These dogs are very popular in school and the students adore the dogs,” she adds. “The dogs are a great mood booster for anyone who sees them. ”

Only two of the students bring their own dogs to school. The rest are the pets of faculty and staff or those that Reed brings. At any given time, there are always two dogs in the school, Wright says. Ralph is her dog, and he responds well to Ben as his handler.

“Ralph works hard and everybody loves him,” Ben says. “He’s very good at his job and he’s very responsive to commands.”

The program has evolved over the last four years, Wright says, into something the entire school appreciates, far beyond her students interested in agriculture and veterinary studies.

“We hope that our dogs and handlers offer the Rolling Meadows community a way to reduce anxiety, a reason to smile, and a warm hello,” Wright says.” It really does make a difference for students and staff, and it’s something they look forward to.”

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