By John Lauritsen

FOREST LAKE, Minn. (WCCO) — It’s been a strange past year and a half for students across the state, so any reassurance they can get at school is a good thing, right? High schoolers at Forest Lake have been finding that out firsthand.

During passing time, boots and shoes fill the hallways of Forest Lake High School.

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In the middle of it all, you’ll also find a set of paws. They belong to a 3-year-old golden doodle named Oliver.

“He absolutely loves people a lot. Especially teenagers,” said Oliver’s owner, Erin Thein.

And they love him back. Oliver is a therapy dog. He’s been at Forest Lake since 2019, but since students returned from distance learning, he’s even more visible.

“He was very confused about what was going on during COVID. He missed the kids a lot,” Thein said.

Thein, who is also an English teacher, takes Oliver to school twice a week where he wanders around her classroom, occasionally settling down at a student’s feet or on his couch. Whether it’s obvious or not, he’s actually doing a job. Instead of chasing squirrels he’s chasing away anxiety during a challenging time.

“I notice a difference in the classroom when Oliver is here. Students are a little more at ease. There’s more smiling and more positive comments between people,” said Thein.

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It’s not just the hallways and classrooms where Oliver makes his presence felt. He’s a regular at all kinds of school events.

From tennis matches to school dances, prom to graduation. He’s even front and center in the yearbook.

“When you have dances you are stressed. And when kids see Oliver they flock to Oliver and he’s helped many of our high-risk students make it through social events,” said principal Jim Caldwell.

“Sometimes four kids who don’t know each other will be petting Oliver or taking turns petting him and then they will connect with each other,” said Thein. “So he helps builds community in the classroom.”

He also gets an “A” for enthusiasm. A different kind of teacher, but one you can learn a lot from.

“He has an amazing life. He gets a lot of ear scratches. He gets belly rubs. He just loves that connection with students,” said Thein.

Thein said she makes sure all students are comfortable with Oliver in her classroom before she lets him loose. She said about the only time he barks is when he needs to go to the bathroom.

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John Lauritsen