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Future Guide Dogs Train At Highland High School In Gilbert
Highland High School in Gilbert has three new students this year, and they’re not your typical high school students.
Arnetta, Tucson and Vladimir are lab puppies, and they’re Highland High School’s smallest, fuzziest students at just 13 weeks old. And, like the other students on campus, they’re here to learn and prepare for a future career, with a little help.
“For me, this program isn’t just, you know, I get a puppy and I get to raise and train it. This is going to be somebody’s lifeline someday,” Shelby Arrington said.
Arrington and three other seniors at Highland are training these wiggly, waggy puppies to be guide dogs for people who are blind or have low vision.
The seniors are part of the National FFA Organization, formerly known as Future Farmers of America, an agriculture and leadership program chartered in schools across the country. The dogs come from Guide Dogs for the Blind, a California-based non-profit.
“The school setting is a very ideal place to raise puppies,” said Brent Ruppel, who is with Guide Dogs for the Blind.
“There’s a lot of activity, a lot of confusion going on there, a lot of people, a lot of different noises, and it helps prepare the dogs to be guide dogs,” Ruppel said.
They like this setting so much that about 100 puppies from Guide Dogs for the Blind are currently being trained by FFA students. That’s 1/8 of their total puppies-in-training. But these four seniors at Highland are the first in Arizona to participate in the partnership, overseen by Amy Dillard, who teaches veterinary science.
“This is part of the curriculum,” Dillard said. “They have to have taken animal science prior to this so they have a little foundation in animal care.”
And their knowledge shows. Liz Parra is one of the student trainers.
“So you say nice, and you give them their food,” Parra said. “And then they learn positive reinforcement.”
And a quick pop of the leash means “no.” It’s tough to be strict to such a cute face. But Shelby Arrington said obedience is critically important for their future jobs. So is knowing when not to obey.
“Basically if their handler is asking them to walk across the street and there are cars coming, she needs to be able to say ‘I’m not going to listen right now because you’ll get hit by a car if we actually go',” Arrington said.
Clearly there’s chemistry in this classroom between the students and dogs. Briar Lopez said it’ll be tough to let them go at the end of the training. But seeing them succeed will be worth it.
“You want them to go to campus and you want them to pass through all eight levels of training,” Lopez said. “Then you want them to go on to graduate and be able to hand them off to somebody who’s gonna use them for the rest of their lives.”
But for about the next 15 months, the dogs will stay with the Highland seniors, which means come August, they might embark on another adventure together - college.