CRESTVIEW — Roughly two years ago, enforcement of a policy banning animals from Okaloosa County School District campuses prevented a local celebrity — Dozer the Therapy Dog — from participating in area elementary schools’ reading program. 

At the time, Okaloosa Schools Assistant Superintendent Nick Kootsouradis told the News Bulletin that the ban was designed to enhance safety on school grounds. 

“As well-trained as animals are, sometimes they are unpredictable,” he said. “And you have the allergies issue.”

However, some residents now question the school district’s recent acceptance of Sonic, a muzzled Crestview police K9 children fawned over and pet Aug. 9 at Walker Elementary School’s open house.

Since then, the News Bulletin has received a number of comments on its Facebook page regarding the issue.

"So what I'm [understanding] is that the only reason Dozer is not allowed is because of a 'school board policy,'" Bart Smith said. "If so, the citizens of the county who are opposed to this should request to be heard in front of the school board requesting a policy change.

"If the meeting, which they have to allow, is attended by numerous citizens, who vote for their respective board members, then there is a great chance that this "policy" could be changed. Just a thought."

"One factor why the school board banned Dozer was the 'allergy issue,'" Gary Jacobs said. "I supposed police working dogs are more hypoallergenic."

"Any trained dog ( service animal) as well as police K9's should be allowed anywhere," Allan Housdn said. "Period. Change the damn policy."

A poll on the Crestview News Bulletin's Facebook page asked readers whether Dozer should be allowed on campus; it attracted 175 comments, mostly from Dozer's supporters. 

Among those concerned is Angie Nousiainen, Dozer the Great Dane’s owner.

“Dozer’s training involved people being in his face,” she said. “… the police canine is not used to children invading his boundaries, that is not what he is trained for. Dozer is trained around that; he is used to things like the ‘shaking hand pet.’

"Some people are not steady with their hands and they come at him from wrong angles. Kids stick their fingers in his mouth or wag his tail for him. You know, all the things that little kids do — he is trained for that.

“The police dog is trained to intimidate and catch bad guys. We don’t need a fluffy furry police dog [in the schools]; we need a friendly therapy dog.”

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FILE VIDEO OF DOZER:

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Meanwhile, Henry Kelley, the Okaloosa school district’s director of community affairs, said, "Decisions to allow live animals on campus are made in accordance with school board policy. The criteria for allowing a service dog — there’s two things that have to apply.

"Number one, the student has to have an [Individual Education Plan] or a 504. An IEP — let’s say a child has autism or a reading disability. So we have to have a documented IEP that specifies what to do with a designated animal.”

“The second part of the criteria is the animal has to be in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, [meaning] the animal has to ‘read and alert.’ For instance, if I go into a diabetic coma, then the dog has to be able to ‘read’ that I am going into a diabetic coma and then ‘alert’ by barking.”

The policy that banned Dozer from elementary schools in the county was adopted June 25, 2007 in Chapter 03-19 of the school board’s online policy handbook, which states, among other things, that “live animals on the premises of Okaloosa County schools are discouraged at all levels” unless for experimental purposes.

However, there is an exception for police dogs. It says, “This policy does not apply to law enforcement canine units or approved assist animals."

Kelley said the policy is not anti-Dozer in origin.

“The policy is not against Dozer,” he said. “It has to be approved in advance and very few animals are allowed on campus.”

Dozer’s fans can find comfort in one other thing.

“We made the offer to allow Dozer to come in on the weekend,” Kelley said.