Gunther is just like every other fourth-grader at Nova Eisenhower Elementary School in Davie, with some slight differences. They write with pens, he stays in one. They have hair, he has fur. Their shirts have collars, he wears one.
Yes, Gunther is a dog, and the students in Suzanne Shaw’s class are collectively "puppy raising" him, preparing him for service dog training.
"He’s learning basic commands and he’s learning to get along with everyone," Shaw said.
Gunther doesn’t just hang out in the classroom. He’s an integral part of Shaw’s lesson plans.
"Over 20 years of teaching, it has just brought new life into it, the students love him, they want to be here every day, they love being with Gunther, he is just part of their class,” Shaw said.
The kids socialize Gunther while he unleashes learning opportunities for the kids.
"It’s very unique and when you come into this class it’s contagious, all the lessons that she does are centered around Gunther,” said Broward County School Board member Laurie Rich Levinson, who was instrumental in paving the way for Gunther’s classroom experience.
"Everything we can tie him to, we do; math, we have morning math with Gunther called Gunther Math, whatever the skill in our math series, we’re tying it to Gunther,” said Shaw.
She also has the students reading dog-centric children’s literature, and canine-inspired vocabulary words decorate the walls.
To say this golden retriever is beloved would be an understatement. His picture is in the yearbook like every other student. Gunther is all calm and no bite with his classmates.
"There are students who’ve gone through difficulties at home, there’s students who have difficulties in class learning, it has motivated them and helped them kind of relax and feel better about being here,” Shaw explained.
For Gunther, this whole experience is sort of like kindergarten through 12th grade, but he still has to go to college. That means graduating and leaving this class.
"February 16th is the day he matriculates to advanced training and there’ll be a couple of tears,” Shaw said, knowing half the class will probably be weeping as Gunther leaves.
He will be trained as a service dog by Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit agency which supplies service dogs free of charge to people who need them.
Rich Levinson says what has worked in Shaw’s class could also work in other classrooms in South Florida.
"Yes, we hope that there will be others who want to do this, this has worked out incredibly well in this school,” she said.
For the time being, Gunther is the leader of his pack of fourth-graders. Soon he’ll be one person’s faithful companion.