Five Salt Lake high school students were all tears and smiles Saturday as they said goodbye to their canine companions of the past year the initial graduates of a first-ever program matching student trainers with future guide dogs for the blind.
Martine Savageau, a longtime guide dog training volunteer and Salt Lake School District teacher, conceived of the idea as a natural match for classes she teaches at the district's Career Technical Center.
"Being a training leader for Guide Dogs for the Blind and a schoolteacher ... I thought incorporating the two things would be a great idea," Savageau said. "I got wonderful support for the idea from my administration and from the state ... and we just did it."
A class Savageau teaches on companion animals became the requisite preparation course for students interested in getting involved with guide dog training. Students from all three Salt Lake high schools East, West and Highland attend classes at the center. In addition to preparing the students for the responsibility of raising a companion animal, the class also gives Savageau a chance to spot the students who are truly ready for the challenge.
"It helps me decide who will be appropriate and ready to be part of the program," Savageau said. "It is as big a responsibility as being a parent ... not every student is of the caliber to be a student and a guide dog parent."
Last fall, students began their training program with puppies aged about 5 months. The purpose of this segment of guide dog preparation is discipline and socialization. Each of the student trainers follows a program, outlined by the Guide Dogs for the Blind group, to teach the puppies to follow commands and acclimate to real-life situations. The dogs, and their trainers, live a regimented life, adhering to strict schedules and rules regarding conduct in the home and out in the world. All of the tasks and goals of the student training are geared toward making the dogs ready for the next phase of education where they will learn how to function as a guide for a blind companion.
Robert Tate graduated from West High last week and is one of Savageau's students who had the right combination of desire and commitment to take part in the program. On Saturday, he was both sad about saying goodbye to his companion, Fairmont, and brimming with satisfaction about his time as a trainer.
"Take your happiest memory and stretch it over a year ... then multiply it by a thousand," Tate said. "That's been my experience with Fairmont."
Tate said there were numerous challenges that came along with his responsibilities to the training program, including some initial apprehension on the part of his parents.
"At first, my parents were a bit skeptical," Tate said. "They ended up being very involved with Fairmont and his training ... and today, they are as sad to see him go as I am."
Tate said Fairmont became part of his daily routine, and dealing with school activities like participation in the dance company required the help of others, including his girlfriend, Penny Vandermolen. She was so taken by the golden lab that she decided to be a part of next year's program.
"I just fell in love with Fairmont," Vandermolen said.
Barb Deevers, canine community field supervisor for Guide Dogs for the Blind, is based in Denver and heads the training operations in Utah and Colorado. She said the program was a great success and Vandermolen will be one of eight student trainers in Salt Lake high schools next year.
"The kids have had a tremendous amount of attention and they've have done great," Deevers said. "All the dogs have received exactly what they needed from their student companions ... they've been outstanding."
Deevers said the puppies placed with students were specially selected as ones that would be compatible with a high school setting. Of the eight puppies initially chosen, five showed the right kind of personality to sync with student life.
"The five puppies we placed had the right traits to accompany a high school student," Deevers said. "Our dogs are specially bred for these traits ... but not all of them have what it takes to be a guide dog."
Fairmont and the other four student-trained dogs are headed for the San Rafael, Calif., headquarters of Guide Dogs for the Blind, where they will complete their training. They include Sage, trained by Allison Jeffrey, senior, East High; London, trained by Rani Clark, senior, East High; Maggie, trained by Mollie McAlpin, junior, West High; and Madden, trained by Kassandra Ornelas, junior, West High. The last stage of preparation before they become service dogs for the blind will last six to nine months. The student trainers can keep an eye on their former companions via the organization's Web site.
Saturday was a day for goodbyes for last year's trainers but also a day for hellos as six new puppies arrived to begin their training stints in Utah. Two of the new arrivals went home with student-trainers from the inaugural program. Rani Clark just graduated from East High and her new companion, Zinfandel, will be accompanying her to classes at Salt Lake Community College in the fall. Her mom, Shanda Clark, attended the graduation/reception at the Salt Lake City Blind Center and had high praise for the program.
"It's been really great for my daughter," Clark said. "I think the kids have done great ... and it's really a lesson in responsibility."Shanda Clark watched as her daughter said goodbye to London ... with a smile on her face and tears in her eyes.