Daniel Mallory didn't have the patience to sit through classes at school, and his grades were failing. Then he started attending a special class to help at-risk students like him. Now, not only is Daniel passing, he looks forward to going to school each day. And it's all because of Lee'a.
With puppy dog eyes, a mop of sand-colored fur and a wagging tail, the 10-month-old golden retriever has a morning greeting unlike any other.
It's a greeting that has inspired higher attendance, better grades and more concentration.
"Even though it's only an hour, it's the best hour of the school day," Daniel said of the time he spends with Lee'a.
Daniel and Lee'a are part of Kids and Canines, a nonprofit assistance-dog training program partnered with Hillsborough County schools. Kindergarten through high school students from northern Hillsborough County attend the Dorothy Thomas Center, which specializes in exceptional-student education. Those in the seventh and eighth grades can apply to take a special class where they learn to train dogs who are placed with disabled people and children with autism. Selected students build connections with the dogs and are encouraged to behave better and attend school regularly.
The program started 13 years ago as a way to combat truancy. It is the only one of its kind in a school district nationwide, said Carrie Burke, the program's office manager.
Since its inception, 203 students have completed the program, and their average attendance rate improved by 80 percent, according to Kids and Canines. The students are doing better academically, too. In general, grade point average increased from 1.9 to 2.8.
"I learned you have to have patience and that you can't get angry," Daniel said of the class on a recent afternoon.
He had taught Lee'a how to slide underneath a chair and stay there while he walked around it. Since he started the program this fall, Daniel improved his grades and said he enjoys school more.
Jennifer Wise, the program's director, says those kinds of changes are common.
"The students have made amazing transformations," she said.
"In the beginning there is usually a lot of anger and impulsive behaviors," Wise said, "but little by little, they begin to realize this is really important because they know the dog is going to a person who really needs it."
"It teaches you responsibility because I'm basically responsible for my dog," said Kobe Brantley, 14.
Golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers are the most common dogs in the program because of their temperament and intelligence. To become certified service dogs, each must learn 60 skills. Training begins at about 10 weeks old and finishes at 18 months.
The students start with commands like "sit," "stay" and "down." Gradually they train the dogs to turn off lights, open doors, pick up keys and get help if their owners are in need.
After passing certification, dogs are permanently placed with autistic children and disabled people. Dogs that don't pass, often because their personalities don't fit with service dog work, become therapy dogs or are adopted.
By teaching the animals, the students learn, too.
"Our motto here is that if it works for a dog then it works for a person," Wise said.
It worked for Noah Diaz, now 22.
"I wouldn't go to school, wouldn't do work while there and I would disrupt class all the time," Diaz said. Then he met Harley, a golden retriever.
"I fell in love with the program and never missed a day of school from then on," he said.
Today, Diaz works as a nurse at a Tampa dermatology office and volunteers with Kids and Canines. He watches the dogs when needed and is waiting to become a "puppy raiser" — a volunteer who cares for the dogs when they are not at school with the students.
"I think it's the one program that does best in the community," he said.
Someday, Diaz said, he hopes to go back to school so he can work with animals professionally and maybe spread the program beyond Hillsborough County.
The school district provides classroom space and pays the salaries of two employees. Kids and Canines raises money for the dogs, including their purchase and vet bills.
For the students who may be on their last chance in Hillsborough schools, the rewards are priceless.
"These kids are going through a lot in their lives — none of them have easy lives — and these dogs help heal them," Wise said.
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.