When classes began at Kalon Prep Academy in Alexandria this school year, one member of the staff stuck out.
That's because Leo is a dog — a 5-month-old half white lab and half golden retriever, to be exact.
"Leo is an emotional support animal for the kids at the school," said paraprofessional Analea Sheets, who is also Leo's owner. "He just makes it easier for the kids to feel at home, welcomed, a little less anxiety. He helps the kids definitely feel comfortable."
Sheets brought up the idea of the school having an emotional support animal during her job interview.
School officials had thought about the option, but didn't have the funding. However, they said if Sheets was willing to take on the role of looking after him during the off-hours they would be in favor of the idea.
Leo has been roaming the halls of Kalon Prep since school began earlier this month, and has been doing very well, Sheets said.
"Everybody loves him, all the teachers are OK with him," she said. "They've all been so open to him, and the kids adore him. … Some of these kids maybe don't have pets and have always wanted one. This is like a pet that they can have but don't have to take care of."
Most of the time Leo will be interacting with the students in groups, but he also will have alone time with them if necessary.
"There's been kids that will need him one-on-one, just to calm down in a room by themselves, so it's definitely nice to have him around, because he just brings a joy and a happiness to the kids," Sheets said.
Leo has enjoyed himself, too.
"He loves all the kids, runs up to anybody that gives him the time of day," Sheets said. "Even when we're out in public at something that's not school-oriented, he's running up to people."
Even though he's only 5 months old, Leo is extremely mellow.
"We got so lucky with his temperament," Sheets said. "We didn't have to keep him away from the kids for a period of time because he was too wild. He's just been so good."
Sheets said she wanted to get a dog that was at least part golden retriever because of how calm they can be.
"That's what I thought would be the best, just because of other things I've seen with therapy dogs and emotional support dogs," she said. "They have the best temperament, and boy, does he have a great temperament. He is very calm compared to most puppies."
Sheets acquired Leo when he was 10 weeks old, and he began his basic puppy training before school started. Sheets said she has always thought it would be fun to try and train a therapy animal, and so far Leo knows the basic commands.
"He's really good with 'sit,' 'stay,' 'come,'" Sheets said. "He can give high-fives to kids, he can do handshakes. We're kind of learning 'speak,' so he's doing well."
There's still more training for him to do, though, which is why on Sept. 17 he'll be leaving for 30 days of more intensive training.
"He will get certified and will eventually have papers," Sheets said. "He doesn't need to be a certified therapy animal because he's not leading a blind person or sensing somebody's seizures. He's just here for the emotional support of kids and adults and anybody that comes in."
Donations for his care can also be made via Venmo at @kalonprepsLeo or Cash App at $kalonprepsLeo.
Sheets said she is more than happy with how Leo's first days at Kalon Prep Academy have gone.
"He was just an awesome pick," she said.