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Mercer makes friends at Morris Area

Mercer, front and center, is the newest addition to the staff at Morris Area High School. The six-year-old golden retriever works with counselor Tammy Roth as a therapy dog. He's pictured with Holly Carrington's third grade class. 1 / 2
Mercer, front and center, is the newest addition to the staff at Morris Area High School. Student organizations have been working to help Mercer feel at home. He is pictured with officers in student council, Jason Rinkenberger, Peter Schneider, Vaughn Dieter and Kindra Cannon, along with advisor Peg Rinkenberger. The council went shopping for Mercer and purchased a variety of goodies and treats for him, including a dog bed and toy. 2 / 2

MORRIS – Mercer, the newest addition to the counseling staff in the Morris Area School District, has had a lot of help getting settled in his new job.

His playful personality and passion for fetch and hide-and-seek have made the six-year-old golden retriever a hit with students, staff and teachers across the district.

Mercer, a six-year-old golden retriever, recently retired from the Mercer County Sheriff's Office in Stanton, N.D. where he’d worked as a drug dog since he was a puppy. Now a therapy dog in training, Mercer has been working with counselor Tammy Roth since the beginning of October.

Mercer almost arrived in Morris six years ago, but deputies with Mercer County claimed him from a litter first. Roth’s brother works for the sheriff’s department in Stanton, and contacted Roth about adopting Mercer when he was set to retire this September.

After getting the OK from her husband and district principals Ken Gagner and Craig Peterson, Roth agreed to bring Mercer to Morris. Before Mercer arrived, the district made sure to identify students who have a fear of dogs and students who are allergic to dogs make sure they aren’t negatively affected.

Not one to take much of a break, Mercer had only a week off from his last day as a drug dog and his first day as a therapy dog in training on Monday, Oct. 7.

“That first day when we came up to the school he was so excited, but he was thinking he was a drug dog because when we entered the building his nose went down to the carpet right away,” said Roth.

As a drug dog, Mercer was never touched or petted by children because he was at work. But Roth said it hasn’t taken long for him to understand the differences in his new job at school.

On his first day in Morris, Roth brought Mercer to visit some seniors. While Mercer was getting to know students, Roth dropped his leash – something that never happens for drug dogs. After Mercer gave her a quizzical look, a student called for his attention and he was off.

“From then on, he knew that he could be loved by kids,” said Roth. “He had a great time.”

The first time Roth took Mercer to meet some second grade students, she cautioned them to be careful not to step on his paws or tail. While a student was up petting Mercer’s nose, one of the adults in the classroom accidentally stepped on his tail – but Mercer didn’t react at all.

“He didn’t turn around, he didn’t bark – he knew not to be distracted,” said Roth.

Part of helping Mercer understand his new job as a therapy dog is consistent training. When he and Roth leave for work in the morning, Mercer wears a harness and they go out the front door. At home, Mercer wears a regular collar and goes in and out the back door.

For now, Mercer attends class with Roth when she visits students in kindergarten, second and sixth grade once a week, laying at her feet during lessons before playtime. Roth spends time in elementary classrooms as part of preventative counseling, teaching children coping and coaching skills they can build on as they grow older.

Having Mercer provides extra opportunities to talk to students about a range of issues. For example, Mercer had a dentist appointment a few weeks ago. When students participate in a dental activity, Roth can talk about how Mercer also needs to take care of his teeth.

“Flu shots are coming up, and Mercer had to have an I.V. in, so we’re going to talk about how he had to be brave – we’ll relate a lot of things to the kids,” said Roth.

Studies have shown many physical, mental and academic benefits of pet therapy. Spending time with animals can lower blood pressure and release endorphins, encourage communication, lower anxiety and help children with a variety of speech and emotional disorders.

“It seems like the little kids just seem to know that ‘I’m in here and I need Mercer and he’s going to make it all better,’” said Roth.

Roth said she has been interested in the role that therapy dogs can play since she was a senior in college and worked as a dog sitter for a social work professor who used three different schnauzers in her therapy sessions.

“The stories that not just kids but grown-ups would tell to those dogs,” said Roth, noting that stories about the dogs lives can often be used to help children express their feelings or face their fears.

Roth was also influenced by Dr. Walter Roberts, a faculty member in professional counseling at Mankato State University who has two therapy dogs.

Since Mercer arrived, the Student Council, Business Professionals of America, and the Art Club have donated beds, toys and treats for him to set up offices in both buildings. Students in FFA are also building him a doghouse.

“The students have been great with him, and the student organizations have been wonderful,” said Roth. “He’s spoiled here.”

For now, Mercer is officially a therapy dog in training. In addition to time in the classroom, Mercer and Roth will need to put in time at local hospitals, nursing homes and hospice centers to get full certification.

Roth said she’s hoping Mercer will be officially licensed by January or February.