Glacial Drumlin School sixth grader Mari Koopmans said the toughest part about using a service dog was learning to say no – especially to her peers.
Who could resist petting an adorable golden retriever?
“It is very, very hard,” Mari said. “I have to say no, you cannot talk to her and no, you cannot pet her.”
To help GDS learn how to act appropriately around the dog, school staff held an all-school assembly and posted helpful signs around the building.
But this still happens.
Mari, who is in a wheelchair and has a progressive neurological disease characterized with body fatigue along with other symptoms, has been with her service dog, Olive, since the end of first grade.
“The goal is to increase her mobility so Mari is more independent,” said Becca Koopmans, Mari’s mother.
When Mari puts Olive in the service dog vest, Olive knows her work day has begun. As soon as the vest is off, work is over, and Olive dashes towards her Frisbee to play.
Olive retrieves things Mari needs, but Mari worked hard to learn the commands so Olive only retrieves things for Mari.
“Mari needs to establish that she is Olive’s girl,” Koopmans said.
If she did not, Olive would be retrieving items for everyone in the class.
Olive takes Mari’s school supplies in her vest as they go to class.
“Olive carries my books, opens the door and provides comfort to me,” Mari said.
Olive also takes Mari’s library card at the Monona Public Library and gives it to the librarian to check out books.
Renee Tennant, GDS principal, said in the 20 years she has been in the district, Olive is the first service dog she has seen.
One of the myths with having a service dog, Koopmans and her daughter agreed, is that service dogs just do the work.
“Mari works hard to train Olive,” Koopmans said. “When her natural independence was blossoming and with some of her physical symptoms occurring, we want her to be as independent as possible.”
Mari received her service dog through the Wisconsin Academy for Graduate Service Dogs (WAGS) in Madison.
“Mari is a mature young woman and has had a great love for animals and an incredible amount of family support,” said Sarah Sirios, program and training director for WAGS. “She is exceptional.”
Sirios says Mari has demonstrated she is responsible enough to use a service dog.
“It is not an automatic progress,” Sirios said. “She has to keep working on things as her life changes.”
When Mari and Olive were first placed with each other, they did basic skills training at the WAGS facility for about three to four months.
“We did not want them to go home until it was a good working relationship,” Sirios said. “Olive is great with kids, and she and Mari are a great match.”
In school, Mari needs to plan for each class and be prepared for the unexpected.
For instance, if her French class was going to do a cooking activity, Mari may need to make accommodations for Olive.
“Anything with food can be a challenge,” Koopmans said.
When Mari was in first grade, a classmate accidentally dropped a waffle.
“I thought, ‘We need to always make sure to have a bone for Olive,’” Koopmans said.
If there is a field trip or social event, Mari needs to see if it is appropriate for Olive to attend.
School dances may not be a good environment for Olive with a lot of children jumping around, but Mari makes plans for Olive for her other school activities. Olive sits with Mari doing orchestra when Mari plays cello. Mari will also be seeking a role in the drama club play that would be a good fit for her and Olive.
Mari still needs to continually train Olive so her skills don’t get rusty.
Whether it’s summer vacation or winter break, Mari needs to review commands and ensure Olive is ready to go back to school.
Other than having a service dog, Mari is a normal child with many friends who participates in school activities, Tennant said.
“Our students are learning about how service dogs help people be more independent,” she said. “When there is a student with a disability, there is value added to everyone in the school. Everyone benefits.”