Olaf the Certified Therapy Dog at Salk Middle School

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Star News, Elk River, MN, December 2014:

'The school year is barely half over, but Olaf has already established himself as Salk Middle School’s top celebrity. The English Cream Golden Retriever...helps students with developmental disabilities and those who are on the autism spectrum. What students, teachers and members of the administration have found is Olaf is wildly popular among all segments of the student body. In addition to helping calm special needs students and help them with their socialization skills, typical students stop by to see him throughout the day. Some make sure they see him before school starts, others pop in at passing time and others even shave precious time off their lunch period to give Olaf some love. Principal Julie Athman has even added Olaf to her toolkit when distressed students show up in her office. “Students might be expressing anxiousness or (they’re) upset, and I’ll offer to have them come down and see Olaf,” Athman said. “They usually take me up on it.” Parents have also called asking that their child have time with Olaf when needed.

Special education teacher Mary Ostmoe couldn’t be happier with Olaf’s reception at Salk. She is the dog’s handler who watches over him during the day and takes him home to her family at night and on the weekends. She led a successful fund drive to raise the amount needed to pay for the specially trained dog. Ostmoe worked with Pawsitivity Service Dogs, a St. Paul-based nonprofit, to obtain Olaf and get important questions answered.

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Jeff Garcia, a juvenile liaison officer with the Elk River Police Department who spends part of his work week at Salk, has seen Olaf in action with the kids. What has impressed him is how many kids have taken to him. “I think Olaf has had a great impact on the entire school community,” he said.  

Olaf’s main purpose is to be a calming agent in Ostmoe’s classroom. When students get wound up or agitated, Olaf can help return children to a calm state. He’s able to provide an outlet for children who find it difficult or awkward to talk with their peers. Students with autism spectrum disorders and other students who are shy often avoid interactions with peers altogether, but with Olaf, Ostmoe said, they find a bond with the dog, making it easier to strike up a conversation with their peers. Sometimes that’s at the end of the day while Ostmoe takes Olaf on walks or when students are rewarded and get to walk Olaf back to her class.'  

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