An elementary school in the Hyde Park Central School District of New York will welcome its first four-legged "staff member" this year.
Milano, a two-year-old golden retriever/Labrador mix, is a certified facility dog through Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities (ECAD).
Milano will use his skills to help Violet Avenue Elementary School students struggling with a multitude of issues.
"He's so smart and still has a touch of playful, and so kind and calm," said Deanna Gonzalez, principal of Violet Avenue. "We're really excited to introduce him to the kids."
Gonzalez and three other Hyde Park staffers spent the last week of June training to be Milano's handlers. Training sessions were led by Lu Picard, ECAD co-founder and director of programs at the Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie.
Milano will start his days by greeting students as they arrive at school, Gonzalez said.
He will be available to comfort children "who might be having a difficult time or are struggling to stay engaged during the day," Gonzalez added. "He will also be available for the kids to read to him and to write to him ... he is going to have a mailbox by the office."
Because of that, Gonzalez also expects Milano to help enhance the school's literacy program.
“It has become all too common to see 'comfort dogs' dispatched to schools and other locations after a tragic incident," said Picard, in a news release. "These dogs, with their unqualified acceptance and gentleness, help the bereaved, regardless of their age, cope with unimaginable loss and the trauma they are experiencing.
"I am proud to say that ECAD will be working with a forward thinking principal and school to bring a facility dog onto their staff in a preemptive move that we would love to see happen nationally,” Picard added.
The Hyde Park school board approved Milano's $10,000 contract last year. The contract "lasts as long as Milano can work and covers all training costs, including two years of dog training before we got involved," said Aviva Kafka, Hyde Park deputy superintendent.
When he's not at "work," Milano lives with Gonzalez and her family.
"I am responsible for all care of Milano throughout his career in the district," such as food, toys, medical care and more, Gonzalez said. "ECAD suggests that dogs retire at age 11. When Milano retires, I will provide a home and care as long as we are lucky enough to have him."
Picard estimates that Milano's care will cost $1,200 to $1,500 a year, according to ECAD. Kafka noted Gonzalez is paying for his care "out of pocket."
Town of Hyde Park police officer Martin Monaco, the school resource officer at Franklin D. Roosevelt High School, also took the training session. He will be authorized to take Milano to other Hyde Park schools if need be.
Milano is not the first facility dog to be used in Dutchess County.
ECAD, a nonprofit, placed facility dog Bosch in the Dutchess County District Attorney’s Office three years ago. The office shares Bosch with Poughkeepsie-based Family Services, which provides a range of services, including support programs for crime victims and victims of domestic violence.
The Children's Home, meanwhile, is adding its third facility dog to its staff. Elvis, a black lab, will join Ace and Marshall.