MANITOWOC — Roncalli High School has a furry new friend this year.
Benson, a 1-year-old, 60-pound golden retriever, is the Manitowoc Catholic high school’s first service dog.
His emphasis is on serving students, said Shannon Pritzl, admissions and alumni coordinator at Roncalli. Shannon, an alumna herself, spent the past year raising and training Benson, and is his certified handler.
The need for service dogs in schools and other institutions has been growing, Shannon said. “We are identifying more individuals who have physical or cognitive disabilities, or emotional needs,” she said.
Benson, who wears a navy-blue vest with a patch that reads “Roncalli Jets,” is a mother-daughter project.
He came from Custom Canines Service Dog Academy, a nonprofit organization based in Madison, where Shannon’s daughter and Roncalli graduate Payton Pritzl is a senior trainer and puppy raiser. The organization raises, trains and places service dogs at no cost.
“Service dogs are trained for specific tasks to mitigate disabilities,” Payton said.
“The inspiration (for Benson) came from my daughter,” Shannon said. “She said, ‘Remember we’re here to help others. If we can make a difference in people’s lives … it’s worth it because we’ll change a life.’”
Benson is a friend in every sense of the word.
He is trained to comfort people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by offering compression therapy, Shannon said. Benson uses his body weight to ground a person, Payton added.
Benson helps people who have certain triggers by placing himself between the person and the trigger to help them feel safe, Shannon said.
The golden retriever also knows the foundations of alert work and can help calm a person who is getting upset or too excited, Payton said.
“Above and beyond that we are benefiting from the compassion that he offers to our students,” Shannon said.
Golden retrievers make good service dogs because they are mellow, fun-loving dogs, according to Shannon. People feel comfortable approaching them because they are “cuddly, soft, look friendly and are friendly,” she said.
Benson fits in with her personal mission and that of the high school, Shannon added.
“Lifelong service is a mission,” she said. “As an employee, I should be modeling that mission. This has been a real commitment — a physical, emotional and financial commitment.”
Benson is only the third facilities service dog trained through Custom Canines. The others are personal service dogs. The organization is currently training about 40 canines with specialties including working as a guide dog, offering mobility assistance, being a medical alert dog, or serving individuals with autism or PTSD.