Lakeland STAR School/Academy welcomes new team member — Indigo the service dog
Lakeland STAR Academy/School’s newest addition, service dog Indigo, was awarded his Community Canine and Canine Good Citizen certification last week.
||Kimberly Drake, Special to the Lakeland Times
10/12/2018 7:30 AM
Dean Hall/Lakeland Times
Lakeland STAR Academy/School service dog Indigo interacts with student Ronnie Hilmer while special education teacher Claire Malchow looks on.
On Oct. 3, Lakeland STAR School/Academy welcomed its newest team member to join the staff on its mission to provide individualized and outside-the-box education to students of all needs, but particularly those with autism. However, this staff member is different, as he walks on all fours and has fur the color of golden wheat. He is a golden lab named Indigo.
His name is ironic regarding the students he serves, as some believe children on the autism spectrum are “Indigo” children, loosely defined as children who are thought to have special or unusual traits or abilities. Whatever the metaphysical connection, Indigo has already begun to transform the lives of the students at Lakeland STAR in an emotional and physical sense.
Eric Mikoleit, Director of Lakeland STAR, has seen an almost immediate difference.
“In a very short time, the staff has witnessed genuine connections with Indigo and our students,” he said. “An increase in communication and less anxiety in the classroom has been observed.”
According to research, there is a positive correlation between the amount of time a therapy dog spends with students in an Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) classroom and how well the students stay on-task. The most common struggle for those with autism is self-regulation and communication. Specially trained dogs like Indigo help increase social interactions, communication and decrease stress and communication-related behaviors. Often, work ethic is improved, and there is a positive impact on language expression, self-esteem and empathy. A service dog provides emotional support for the students, so they can regulate themselves and proceed with the school day.
Indigo is from Journey Together Service Dog Inc., which provides service dogs to those with post-traumatic stress disorder. Dogs chosen for training reside at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution and are trained and cared for by inmates who apply and meet qualifications for this volunteer dog handler’s position. Volunteers from the community come into the prison and provide services such as dog training for the inmates, as well as take the dogs outside the prison walls to socialize and gain experiences in restaurants, stores and other public places.
The story of Indigo’s journey to Lakeland STAR began months ago, when governance board member Nicole Hansen brought information regarding Journey Together to Mikoleit’s attention.
“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘A child who connects to a dog, connects to the world,’ and I truly believe in that concept,” Mikoleit said. So, with that in mind, he then presented this idea to Lakeland STAR’s board.
There was unanimous enthusiasm by board members to pursue this endeavor further, so Mikoleit submitted an application to the Oshkosh program in the hopes of becoming one of the few selected to move through the service dog acquisition process. The first response from Journey Together was a discouraging one, as it was likely STAR school would be placed on a three to five-year waiting list. Although a service dog of this caliber was worth the wait, Mikoleit was hoping to have a dog sooner, as it was important for the needs of the students.
Out of the blue, Mikoleit got a welcomed surprise.
“I received a phone call from Brenda, (president of Journey Together) that a two-year-old lab had become available due to a last-minute change,” Mikoleit said. “After vetting my needs and the logistics of Lakeland STAR, she recommended that we visit her facility at Oshkosh Correctional Prison.”
The ball was now in motion for Lakeland STAR to obtain Indigo, and in late August, Mikoleit and two staff members from the school traveled to Oshkosh and spent a day in both the community setting and the prison, working with Indigo and other dogs.
“Our staff was very impressed and overwhelmed in the programming that these dogs complete,” Mikoleit said.
The quest to obtain Indigo continued two weeks later when he and staff members revisited the facility to complete further training and develop a relationship with this very special service dog. After many hours of research and education, Mikoleit and his wife Kerry were able to purchase Indigo for Lakeland STAR.
“His laid-back temperament and disposition make him a wonderful service/facility dog,” Mikoleit said. “Indigo loves children, and his calm demeanor makes him an ideal dog to work with students on the autism spectrum. It was unanimous that Indigo would be a great addition to our school.”
According to Mikoleit, Indigo has mastered over 80 verbal/hand commands and was awarded his Community Canine and Canine Good Citizen certification last week.
“He comes to school every day, joins students in classrooms, goes for walks and is a part of one student’s physical education class,” Mikoleit said.
The interest in service dogs like Indigo for schools has increased but finding them can be an arduous and lengthy process. The process may be half the battle as according to the research publication, “Students with Autism, Service Dogs, and Public Schools: A Review of State Laws,” published by Hammill Institute on Disabilities, current state laws may not facilitate the use of service dogs by children with autism spectrum disorder or provide sufficient guidance for parents and schools. Only eight percent of states address the eligibility, training and school access of service dogs for individuals with autism. This research indicates that service dogs like Indigo are a very rare addition to a school, and Mikoleit can’t help but agree.
“Our school is very fortunate to have Indigo join our team,” he said. “Animals have a profound impact on human behavior. The unconditional love that Indigo brings to our school simply can't be underestimated.”
Kimberly Drake can be reached at .