Joe Friess remembers well the reaction he got back in 2007 after traveling to Swanton to pick up the Wauseon school district’s new therapy dog.
When the Middle School principal arrived at Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence (ADAI) and asked for Kramer, an employee smiled and said, “Oh, yes. The class clown.”
Kramer, a Labradoodle who fast became endeared as the school district’s mascot, died in June, just two days after his 12th birthday. He battled illness for a year before succumbing to throat and tongue cancer. Friess, who took the dog into his home, said with emotion, “He was a friend to all, and a friend to me. He was a kind soul.”
With school beginning in two weeks, his absence in the coming academic year will be sorely felt, Friess said.
“Kids just wanted to be on him,” he said. “It was like a swarm of piranhas when the little ones saw him. He’d just sit there and allow himself to be pet. He was just so loyal, kind. He was just a true friend. He wanted to make you happy, never got angry, and was just forgiving.”
Kramer was born in Findlay in 2005, and donated to ADAI by the breeder. He underwent extensive training as a therapy dog for school students, and at just over two years old became ready for service.
With the full support of former Wauseon School Superintendent Marc Robinson, Friess had applied to ADAI for a dog over a year earlier, sending along a form and a $25 fee. He had been inspired by a therapy dog in the Bryan City School District, the first of its kind in northwest Ohio.
“I just thought it was a good idea for our students, too,” he said
Kramer was actually due to be adopted by another school district, but it backed out of the arrangement. Friess didn’t hesitate. “It was just by God’s good grace that I got my best friend,” he said.
It was also the Wauseon school district’s good fortune to be gifted with Kramer when it was by the non-profit organization. The cost of training an ADAI therapy dog is between $17,000 and $20,000, and later a $2,000 adoption fee was established.
Kramer began his service at Wauseon Middle School in October of 2007, becoming just the fourth school therapy dog in the region. But before the dog could start his duties Friess and Dave Moore, the school’s guidance counselor, went through several days of training with him.
“A lot of it was kind of like a bonding thing. We were just trying to figure each other out,” Friess said.
He said Kramer was trained “to be solid and dependable, and not react to a lot of noise and activity. He went with the flow. And he could tell when someone was a little agitated. When he saw someone was upset, he’d go over and try to help.”
Kramer immediately clicked with the students, who fussed over him at his usual spot in the Middle School library or when he tagged after Friess throughout the school.
But Kramer also visited the elementary and primary schools, often with the district’s speech therapist, Bobbie Simpkins. He had learned a few tricks to entertain the kids, including turning the book pages with his nose during story time in the lower grades, and bringing a tissue to former librarian Kim Murry when she sneezed on cue.
The high school was visited less frequently, but that’s where Kramer made one of his biggest impressions. He was there with Friess when they paused just outside the school’s gym to watch volleyball practice.
“(The students) stopped practicing and came over to him. I apologized to the coach for interrupting,” Friess said with a laugh.
He added, “Kramer was physically touched by hundreds of students each day. There was just something about those soft, brown, loving eyes.”
The dog also made weekly trips to visit the residents of Fulton Manor in Wauseon with Ann Oberski, a retired district teacher.
And while Kramer usually acted with the utmost professionalism, he had a mischievous side.
He’d come skulking out of my office, and I knew darn well he was in the wastebasket, looking for something,” Friess said.
His illness was discovered during a teeth cleaning in June of 2016. The veterinarian said it was caught early but the treatment options were limited. Kramer was placed on medication and a healthful diet.
“If we hadn’t found it by chance, I’m not sure he would have had a year,” Friess said. “We did what we could. He was a battler.”
Kramer continued his service throughout the 2016-17 school year without revealing his illness. In March, the veterinarians told Friess, “The fact that he’s still here is a miracle, and the fact that he has a little time left is even more of a miracle.”
The principal, whose true friendship with the dog was forged through their relationship at home, decided in June it was time to let his buddy go peacefully. Kramer was put to sleep June 23.
“He and I weren’t apart very much,” Friess said, his voice breaking. He had Kramer cremated, and has requested the dog’s remains be buried with him.
Superintendent Larry Brown praised Kramer for continuing to serve the students and the public even after his official retirement. “Wauseon schools truly appreciate the long-term efforts of Mr. Friess for providing for his service training, meeting all of Kramer’s needs, and getting him to and from the many school and community events over his service dog career,” he said.
Paperwork has been submitted for a new district therapy dog, but the wait can be lengthy. The adoption fee will be paid through fundraisers.
“He can’t be replaced but he can be followed,” Friess said. “He set a pretty high standard, a pretty high bar. He was an easy dog to love. If the one who follows up does half as good a job he’ll be loved by hundreds of people.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.