Service Dogs Receive New Life Through High School Training Program

IMG_20150516_124646About two years ago, three neglected labradoodle puppies were trapped in a squalid hoarding situation, living in a muddy, fly-ridden property in the Southwest Valley.

The dogs were covered in ticks and suffering from skin infections, and things might’ve gotten worse if Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputies didn’t raid the property and rescue the dogs, providing a new life for the animals.

Their new life has manifested itself through a program that allows the dogs to forge a special bond with charter high school students, who trained the dogs to provide comfort to a range people with mental and physical disabilities, and conditions.

The dogs, students and new caretakers are all part of partnership between Arizona Agribusiness & Equine Center High School, a charter school with five schools across Maricopa County, and the Foundation for Service Dog Support, who works with the schools to provide the animals and guidance to the students as part of a two-year training program.

The labradoodles were among 10 dogs that “graduated” in May from the program, which is in its fifth year of partnering with the school, said Linda Downing, executive director of AAEC.

The program is unique because the dogs live with the students, who are not only responsible for training the dogs to become service animals, but also overseeing their veterinary care and other duties.

“It teaches them a lot about responsibility,” said Suzanne Drakes, AAEC’s assistant director, referring to the students. “They know how to react to different types of situations.”

The students gain knowledge on numerous topics, ranging from proper dog-handling methods to details of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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The school already offers a Veterinary Science program, where students study animal diseases, anatomy, physiology and clinical techniques, allowing the school to easily integrate the service dog program into its curriculum.

Aside from the academics and leadership skills, the students, mostly juniors and seniors, develop a deep connection with the dogs that they’ve been caring for and training for two years.

During May’s graduation ceremony, one student compared the bond with the dogs to a mother and child. Watching the dog leave and go to another family was like a mother letting their children go and “spread their wings,” she said.

Although the students said goodbye to their dogs, they know the animals which were once in need of rescue will now help their new owners cope and recover from a series of injuries, and other physical and mental ailments.

The new owners included a firefighter and Iraq war veteran who was diagnosed with PTSD, a teacher’s assistant who was seriously injured during a class trip and a U.S. Coast Guard veteran.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose M.A.S.H. unit rescued the three labradoodles, attended last month’s ceremony, where he joined the students in handing over the leashes of the service dogs to the recipients.

C.J. Betancourt, executive director for The Foundation for Service Dog Support, said she hopes the program continues to grow because it’s a valuable experience for the recipients and the students.

“We need to have a new generation of dog trainers and teachers. We want to produce a better quality of training,” she said.

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