Benson the dog is showing the teachers at Lake Illawarra High School a thing or two about classroom management.
Since the two-year-old golden labrador enrolled at the start of the year, he has helped reduce truancy and bullying and increase respect and responsibility among the school's special needs students - and he doesn't even need to lift a paw.
"He just comes into class each day, picks the kids he wants to sit with and just settles down," support unit head teacher Martin Moore said.
"He doesn't need to do anything - just having a dog in the classroom has a calming influence on the students.
"They just continue on with their work with him by their side, maybe stopping to give him a pat or a scratch occasionally.
"He doesn't judge students or reprimand them if they're angry or frustrated but he just instantly seems to have a positive effect on their mood."
Lake Illawarra is the first school in the country to have an assistance dog and Mr Moore said he'd encourage other schools to take their lead.
"We got Benson to work with students in our support unit who have mild to moderate intellectual disabilities or emotional disturbances," Mr Moore said.
"We had been looking for a way to reduce truancy, increase motivation and reduce anxiety among these kids and through our research we discovered a US school district which had had great success with using dogs in the classroom.
"Since Benson has started, there's been a noticeable difference in the classrooms of our support unit - there's been an increase in attendance and positive incidents such as students helping each other. And there's been a drop in negative incidents like bullying and minor violence," Mr Moore said.
The school obtained Benson from Assistance Dogs Australia, which is based in Heathcote and provides assistance dogs for people with a range of intellectual and physical disabilities.
The CEO of the national charity, Richard Lord, said they had provided "facility dogs" such as Benson to a range of facilities or organisations across Australia.
"We have put one into Bear Cottage at Manly, which looks after kids with terminal illnesses, another has gone to a group home with intellectually disabled young people at Geelong, and another is at a drug rehabilitation centre in Tasmania," Mr Lord said.
"This is the first school to take on a dog and we're very excited about it and have received a lot of positive feedback."
The charity, which relies on public donations, uses voluntary puppy raisers to look after the dogs before they undergo six months of intensive training.
Mr Moore and another teacher, Ryan Orlender, have also been trained to handle Benson.
"The kids just adore Benson," Mr Moore said. "And it gives us as teachers another tool to make kids calmer so we can get on with our job of teaching them."
If you are using our iPhone app, you can view Benson in the video tab.
Pictured: Students Sam Spence, left and Brodie Bridge, right, with Benson and aid Paul Morris, centre. At the rear are teachers Martin Moore and Ryan Orlender, with whom Benson lives. Photo: ANDY ZAKELI
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