Two years ago, Bob Hollinbeck, the counselor at Eisenhower grade school in Hopkins, Minn., decided he needed an assistant. Bypassing established hiring procedures, he brought in Coco Hollinbeck despite Coco's inability to pass a written test and her obvious lack of academic credentials.

But this is no hard-hitting exposé of nepotism and hiring abuses. This is rather the story of a man and his dog and some kids who think it's neat that Coco, a 55-pound Labrador retriever with mournful eyes, is their assistant counselor.

"She can't wait to come to work," says Hollinbeck, 48. "Her ears perk up when she hears the buses, and she bounds in the door. She thinks she's a kid and that these kids are her playmates."

Yet there's no doubt that Coco is taken seriously at Eisenhower. She wears a name tag that reads ASSISTANT SCHOOL COUNSELOR, and her picture hangs in the hallway, right below photos of principal Chuck Mykleby and Bob Hollinbeck. "She helps the kids, just like a teacher or some other adult would." says sixth grader Ryan Dahl. "She's a pretty cool dog."

Indeed, Hollinbcck says that Coco fills an emotional void for many of the 650 pupils, kindergarten through sixth grade, who attend the suburban Minneapolis school. "It's tough being a kid," says Hollinbeck, who has four of his own. "Sometimes they just need Coco to be there for them—not to talk, not to lecture, just to be there. And this dog accepts you, whether you have the Nikes or not, whether you're male or female, rich or poor. It's unconditional love, and a lot of kids don't get that anywhere else."

Coco is so popular that students sign up days in advance for the privilege of walking her. The canine counselor works without pay, except for a daily Milk-Bone, and a big part of her job is simply being on hand for the support groups Hollinbeck holds for the children. As they struggle to talk about alcoholism or divorce in their families, Coco often seems to sense what will help—a sympathetic look, a wagging tail. "One child was upset, ashamed about something he'd done in class," Hollinbeck says. "He wouldn't talk to his teacher, but he said he'd talk to Coco. I left the room. He talked with the dog. then he could talk to the teacher."

"It's easier to talk to Coco than to anyone else," explains sixth grader Evie Walsh. "She doesn't ever make fun of you or say you're stupid."