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Therapy dog program turns into vocational training for students with special needs at this Forsyth County school

Duck the dog paved the way for a thriving program that now includes nine dogs.

FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — There's a student who is at the top of his class at Lambert High School -- but he's not your average teenager. He's graded not on writing or arithmetic, but in the hearts of the students at school.

"The love, the friendship, the comradery," said Specialized Instructional Teacher Mary Nicoletti, describing the four-legged favorite.

Nicoletti is describing a beloved dog who roams the halls of the Suwanee high school. She said being with the kids is his calling - but turns out what to call him is a trick question.

"He said the dog's name is Duck," she said about the trainer who donated the dog to the school.

Duck the dog is making a new name for himself.

"He had failed out of duck hunting school," Nicoletti explained. "And he didn't just fail a little. He failed miserably! Like, wouldn't fetch, wouldn't retrieve."

But that failure isn't a sore subject in this class. Duck has taught as much as he's learned and supports all of the students in Nicoletti's specialized instruction class.

"Failure, more than not, leads to success," she said. 

But he always wants to sit next to Alyssa Biggs.

"She is completely bonded with him, and he her," said Nicoletti. 

Their bond is strong even outside the classroom.

Like when Alyssa landed in the ICU and needed help getting out of bed.

"Her mom asked, 'If I get Duck in here, will you walk?'' And she said, 'Yes,'" said Nicoletti. 

Alyssa's dad died last year and she really needed a friend.

"Sometimes when I am upset about something, he loves to come by me," Biggs said, adding that he checks on her as if to see she's OK.

With Duck's support, Alyssa is learning what she wants to do after graduation.

"She said she wanted to work with dogs for a living and with her transition plan, we were like, 'we've got dogs,'" said Nicoletti. 

Alyssa used her training with Duck to get certified as a therapy dog handler.

The school now works with nine different therapy dogs to help students gain confidence and independence.

The kids wrote a book about working with the pups and started a small business selling homemade dog treats.

Lambert is the only school in the state to turn a therapy dog program into vocational training for kids with special needs.

"To be on the cutting-edge of something, on your 25th, 26th, 27th year is exciting," said Nicoletti.

Duck is teaching everyone that it's never too late to learn something new.

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