Penny Miller is often asked how she can stand giving up the dogs she fosters.
A Toledo Public Schools teacher and volunteer for the Ability Center’s Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence, Ms. Miller is constantly saying good-bye, whether to the assistance dogs she helps train or to the students who assist her at TPS’ Natural Science Technology Center.
Days like Wednesday, though, make the good-byes worth it.
“It’s because I know the relationship that dog will have with the person,” she said.
In the district’s small animal management program, based on Elmer Drive near the Toledo Botanical Garden, students learn grooming and veterinary techniques, but in recent years have also helped with training the assistance dogs Ms. Miller fosters. This year’s class works with Kinsey, a four-month-old Labrador retriever.
“She’s really smart,” Mariah Dombrowsky, 18, said. “She picks things up really fast.”
Students and Kinsey got a special treat Wednesday, when last year’s graduate, Jackson, visited with owner Kathy Bowman. Jackson, a smooth collie, was the second dog trained at the learning center, and Kinsey is the third.
For students, they got to see where the dog they helped to train ended up, and the person he is helping. For Jackson, he got to visit his old stomping grounds, and Ms. Bowman said he perked up as soon as they drove into the parking lot.
Jackson and Ms. Bowman have only been together for a couple months, but already they’re in tune. Ms. Bowman has Parkinson’s disease, and when her blood pressure drops she trembles and can fall. Doctors told her she could use a walker or a cane, or find an assistance dog.
Jackson senses when she’s having trouble, gets in close and braces in front of her so she doesn’t fall. When she’s sitting and her blood pressure drops, he presses on her and won’t let up.
Kinsey may not have the same role once she’s graduated from the class, but somewhere she’ll be helping someone soon.
Students in the class learn the basics of training a service dog in all the skills needed to help their owners. Each student teaches Kinsey commands, such as sit-stay or down-stay. Those commands are important, they said, so that the dog stays in control in public.
“She brings out your mothering instinct,” Alisha Rajner, 17, said, “that’s for sure.”
The TPS service dog program grew out of both financial and personal hardship. Ms. Miller had offered dog obedience classes for students after school, but participation waned during the recession, with students unwilling or unable to drive to the West Toledo center. Around the same time, her own dog died, and after mourning the loss, Ms. Miller was considering pet options when she was drawn into fostering service dogs.
She always likes to have class puppies, she said, and merging her fostering and training work into the classroom curriculum seemed a natural fit. The skills students learn working with Kinsey apply in numerous areas. While each animal is different, positive reinforcement techniques are used with dolphins and dogs, Ms. Miller said. And even if the students don’t end up in animal-related professions, she said, they learn how to raise animals the right way.