LORRAINE — River, the Wonder Dog, opens his heart to the school children of Unified School District 112 and they, in turn, open their hearts in return.
Owned by USD 112 Superintendent Steve Woolf, River, who is a trained therapy dog, spends school days hard at work. He listens to children read, lets them pet him, and provides an oasis of calm for students with both big and little problems.
"He’s a fine animal," said Woolf. "He has his own personality."
Indeed, the 7-year-old Labrador retriever has his own cats, Newbie and Monkey, and a girlfriend named Lily.
The cat Monkey picked out River out, and River picked out Newbie by following her around, according to Woolf.
Monkey, a shelter cat in need of a home, is a new addition to the Woolf family. When asked how a cat could pick out a dog, Woolf said, "Monkey just decided to follow him around."
Woolf hopes that Monkey, a young cat, doesn’t expect all dogs to respond as calmly as River does.
In addition, River has a girlfriend, Lily, owned by Woolf’s parents. Lily is a retired therapy dog, providing common ground for the two animals. River goes to after-school care at Lily’s house.
The superintendent is a firm believer in the power of a therapy dog. "The key piece is engagement," said Woolf. "A lot of kids do not have engagement. River helps people open up. It’s amazing to see and it happens often."
He recalls a situation with a student who was truant. After this young person was given the responsibility to take care of River, the student no longer regularly skipped school.
The dog knows 72 commands which are more than most therapy dogs. River is certified, having been trained at the Canine Assistance Rehabilitation Education and Services in Concordia. He was specially bred to be a therapy dog and chosen for intelligence and calm demeanor. His siblings, named Sawyer and Finn, are also used for therapy.
River received additional training from a prisoner at Ellsworth Correctional Facility. A former gang member, the inmate went above and beyond the call of duty and taught River commands such as left, and right, and using the bathroom on command.
Woolf once knew an individual that had seizures. The dog does have an unusual awareness of humans and trained himself to be a seizure dog. "He’d stay with her and cry when she was going to have a seizure," Woolf said.
However, during his non-working hours, like so many of us, River has a few bad habits. "When he is working, if you drop a French fry in front of him he’ll leave it alone," said Woolf. It’s a different story at home.
"My wife calls him the house pig," said Woolf laughing.
While River loves everybody, he reserves a special place only for Woolf. "He is my dog," admits Woolf who has owned River since he was 1-and-a-half-year-old pup.