Over a decade ago, my husband and I committed to fostering a puppy that ultimately would be assigned to a handicapped or visually impaired person. The organization that we partnered with, “Paws with a Cause,” is based in Michigan.
Our black Labrador puppy was named Opal by the students at Tommie Barfield Elementary (TBE), where she attended daily to be socialized through interaction with the students, teachers, small crowds, large crowds and learning basic training commands.
There were a variety of learning experiences for children during Opal’s socialization process, which occurred for the students as well as our assistance dog in training. Although Opal enjoyed these, I think it was the highlight of their day when students were chosen by their teachers to read to her. Of course they had to practice ahead of time and refine their pronunciation (so she could understand them) and use great expression (which perked up her ears). It was a joy to watch our students try harder to read accurately with the incentive of enjoying Opal’s reactions.
Some of the older students took turns walking her with supervision, a great honor, while she galumphed around in her little aqua blue training coat. Staff and students understood that she would be leaving in 14-18 months to go to Michigan for further training and be assigned to a person who needed her skills.
Speakers visited TBE and presented demonstrations with assistance dogs, along with sharing information about various handicaps. Students learned not to pet an assistance dog without permission and a dog’s capabilities after training to do amazing things, such as turn lights off and on, and fetch articles that they knew by name (leash, cellphone, newspaper, laundry basket and more). I believe this was a very positive learning experience for our students. Understanding, compassion and empathy were enhanced and extended by our talented teachers who seized the moments to reinforce character traits that we embraced.
Our creative cafeteria manager, Merle Floyd, created a verrry long cake shaped like a bone for Opal’s birthday. Students wrote Opal letters and stories and, after posting them on the wall for all the other students to read (more literacy extensions), snacked on healthy cake after lunch in honor of our energetic pup, who was not allowed a single crumb of her own cake!
This idyllic experience came abruptly to an end when lawsuits began to erupt about assistance dogs in schools to help students with specific handicaps, and we could no longer have our “puppy-in-training” in the school.
The great news is that there were students and their families that were enlightened and motivated to be puppy-raisers and some have raised more than one pup since that experience. Luckily, there are organizations more local than Michigan to screen families and provide support for them to foster an assistance dog for many important roles, such as: therapy dogs, seizure response, physical disabilities, low blood sugar alert, autism, hearing dog, veterans with PTSD, and combinations of these traits and more.
If you love puppies, have patience and a suitable environment to raise one, are willing to learn about the process and requirements to help someone in need and most important, be comfortable (okay, be reconciled) to send your pup off for further intensive training to make the world a better place for someone, this might be something to consider. Is it hard to relinquish the pup that you’ve raised for 14-18 months? YES. But your dedication and generosity will enable miracles for a person you don’t even know, YET.
Please consider this generous and incredibly rewarding journey to help another human being with a disability. Although I haven’t investigated these sites meticulously, here are some places for you to research:
• pawswithacause.org (great information, but now won’t accept puppy raisers south of Tallahassee)
• Paws assistance dogs (based in Naples, serves surrounding areas)
Jory Westberry has been a dedicated educator for over 40 years, the last 14 as Principal of Tommie Barfield Elementary, where she left her heart. Life is rich with things to learn, ponder and enjoy so let’s get on with the journey together!