Edwin Brown Education Center’s (EBEC) Student Services Program Coordinator Karen Mitchell is in charge of 49 students every day, 15 staff members and one miniature Australian Shepherd named Hercules, or Herc for short.
Born with a cleft palate, Herc wasn’t able to nurse traditionally or drink water from a bowl, which is often deadly for puppies. From day one, Mitchell took on the role of “mother” and began bottle feeding Herc with the help of some of her older students who helped to measure and mix his formula.
“Students and staff all helped in naming him Hercules,” Mitchell said. “We wanted to make sure his name offset his physical limitations. I wholeheartedly believe that Herc survived in large part due to the love and support he had from all the students and staff at EBEC.”
Herc’s office hours started as a way to ensure his well-being, but quickly grew into something much bigger.
“The students who helped with Herc developed a connection with myself and other staff that previously didn’t exist,” Mitchell explained. “Assisting with little Herc allowed the students to experience having something completely depend on them. It also taught them patience and perseverance, because cleft palate pups don’t just easily drink from a bottle.”
In the months since his birth last November, the miniature Aussie has become one of Brown’s resident counselors, at least of the canine variety, Mitchell said. “I’ve witnessed many students go from having a bad day to a good day because of Herc’s affection. He doesn’t judge, he just loves unconditionally.”
Edwin Brown students are officially “bears,” but given that the amount of time Herc spends at the school, he is giving the official mascot a run for its money.
Now that Herc is old enough, the students are helping to train him to be a therapy dog. His path to therapy dog status includes the ability to follow commands, being comfortable around people, and the ability to remain calm in stressful situations and handle loud and possibly startling sounds. He will also have to give up licking as part of his training. No small feat for a puppy.
“The decision to essentially raise Herc at Edwin Brown is one of the best I’ve made in my career,” Mitchell said. “Herc is always teaching empathy and compassion. He’s had a profound positive effect on my students and I’m looking forward to that continuing as he completes therapy dog training.”