COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - The first two comfort dogs in Three Rivers Community Schools, Tanner (far right) and Austin (bottom left) arrived at Three Rivers High School Tuesday. Tanner will be the new comfort dog at the high school, while Austin will be stationed as the new comfort dog at Norton Elementary School. Pictured is Austin’s handler Kim Hoercher (left), Tanner’s handler Carrie Balk (right), and TRHS student Bailee Burr (center), who helped the district get a veterinary partnership.

New comfort dogs arrive in Three Rivers schools

Public fundraising effort continues for cost of dogs

THREE RIVERS — A pair of new furry friends will be making their debut in a couple of Three Rivers schools in the near future.

Tanner, a 2-year-old golden retriever, and Austin, a 2-year-old black lab, arrived at Three Rivers High School Tuesday, the first two facility dogs in what is being called the “Three Rivers Community Schools K9 Comfort Crew.”

“This is a day we've been looking forward to,” Three Rivers High School principal Carrie Balk said. “The process went really smoothly, starting with the Board of Education approval, and working with Paws With A Cause, we had a pretty good idea of what to expect. It's a great day for our district.”

Tanner and Austin come to the schools via the Wayland, Mich.-based nonprofit Paws With A Cause, an organization which trains dogs to be assistance animals or facility animals for people and organizations that need them. Both dogs have been fully trained, having gone through an extensive process that includes obedience training, public access training, and advanced training in the Michigan prison system before they are certified. According to the organization’s website, professionally trained facility dogs work with a trainer or handler to serve multiple people who need social interaction, recovery motivation, comfort, and/or a feeling of safety.

Tanner will be placed at Three Rivers High School under the care of Balk, while Austin will be placed at Norton Elementary school under the care of behavior interventionist Kim Hoercher. Each of them, Balk said, have unique personalities that are “perfect” for their respective environments. Both dogs are expected to start their duties within the next two to three weeks as they acclimate to their new home environments, and subsequently get acquainted with the schools.

“Mostly, it's getting them used to their handlers, and Paws will be providing support for that, so I think just getting them used to them is a whole new world for them, making sure they're comfortable in the school and ready to go,” Balk said. “We'll be spending two to three weeks with the home handlers acclimating them to the home setting, and then after that, we'll transition them into the schools when they're ready.”

The process of getting a facility dog program in Three Rivers schools has been fairly quick, and all points back to Lindstrom, a 1-year-old golden retriever currently in training that has been with Three Rivers High School’s AdviseMI advisor Michaela Whipple, who is also a volunteer at Paws With A Cause, at the school since the beginning of the school year. Because of what Balk called the “significant” positive impact Lindstrom has had on students at the school, she said she wanted to “carry on what [Lindstrom] started” once the dog leaves for its next phase of training in February.

“I reached out to Paws, filled out the application, Norton Elementary did as well,” Balk said. “They reached out to us, said they had two dogs they believed were matches. A group of us from the district went up to visit Paws With A Cause up in Wayland and met both dogs last week, and we fell in love with them.”

Prior to the organization reaching out, the Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education approved back in December the start of a facility dog program in the district, which is beginning with the high school and Norton Elementary. More schools, such as Hoppin Elementary, could follow in the future.

Balk said both dogs will be used in mainly a comfort and therapy role for students.

“Right now, what I'm noticing is that students are experiencing a high level of anxiety for a number of reasons. I think part of it is the recent school violence, COVID has certainly flipped their lives upside-down in the last two and a half years, and Lind has had a unique influence on our building. She's safe for kids, she doesn't ask a lot of questions, she's a great listener, and that's what Tanner and Austin will be as well. The difference has been fairly profound,” Balk said. “It’s hard to put into words, but I think you'll probably have 700 kids that'd be happy to tell you.”

There may be a good deal of excitement among students for having a new comfort dog in the high school. While the dogs were being initially acclimated just outside the main hallways of the school, a few students passed by the group, with some of them having their faces light up with a smile when they saw them.

As for Norton Elementary, principal Jen Graber said she is excited to have Austin at her school in the near future.

“We’ve wanted a therapy dog for years, we just haven’t had the right person to say yes to us,” Graber said. “Our kids, especially at this time, they have not been able to cope with being away from people with COVID and being shut in, and some of our kids have been maybe a year without normal socialized contact with people. … Our kids need the extra support.”

Community reaction to the new facility dog program has been mostly positive, however some opponents of the program say the district should be spending their money on safety measures in the wake of the school shooting in Oxford, Mich., rather than on dogs in schools. Currently, money is being raised through numerous fundraising efforts to help cover the roughly $6,000 cost per dog, the biggest being a donation fund set up by the Three Rivers Area Community Foundation (TRACF). Executive Director Melissa Bliss said close to $1,000 has been donated so far. A smaller fundraiser held in the past week in the high school raised an additional $300 on its own, and the schools are looking into a few outside grants to help offset those costs.

Balk said she understands those who say school safety should be a bigger priority than the dogs, saying it was a “good point” that was also brought up at the December school board meeting. She added the cost of the dogs is a reason why they’ve reached out to the TRACF for assistance, as well as reached out to local businesses who are assisting with veterinary and grooming services.

“The district, we have a lot of areas of focus, and you can argue all of them are important. As time goes by the community will get to know these dogs, and I think they're really essentially going to be icons within each of the buildings, certainly with the students and hopefully with the students and community members,” Balk said. “As far as the cost, these are dual-certified, trained dogs. They've gone through a fairly extensive program, and they've been assessed to be fits within schools.”

Along with being in schools, Balk said she’s looking forward to helping out the community in general with the dogs, saying she’s reached out to St. Joseph County Victim Services to see if there could be assistance Tanner or Austin could provide them.

TRCS Interim Superintendent Nikki Nash said she was excited for dogs to be a part of the district as well.

“We have been talking about therapy dogs for eight-plus years at least, and I think more and more with Paws With A Cause and the different programs they’re offering, we’ve been able to reach out and actually have the trained dogs and not just pets who go through a training,” Nash said. “This way, they’re trained to be therapy dogs for each of the buildings. I can’t say enough about it.”

Overall, Balk said she’s looking forward to seeing what kind of an impact both Tanner and Austin will have on their respective schools.

“Where we go from here is going to be pretty incredible,” Balk said.

Those who wish to donate to the TRACF’s fundraiser for the facility dogs to help offset can do so at, go to the donate page and select the “TRHS – Paws With A Cause” option from the dropdown list.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or

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