January 18, 2014

Raising guides

Eastbrook teacher, students train puppies for the blind

By Christopher Smith

— Call it chemistry.

Call it a spiritual connection.

Or, as Tristan Kelley calls it, “Just a weird telepathy thing.”

But Tristan, a 13-year-old student at Eastbrook Middle School, became best friends with Kia, a puppy that Eastbrook teacher Shanda Hickman brought with her each day of class last year.

“Every time I sat in the floor when we were watching a movie in class, she (Kia) would automatically wake up and (come) sit in my lap,” Tristan said. “I bonded with her, I guess, a little bit more than the other students. I don’t really know why.”

That connection made it all the harder when Kia had to leave. Hickman had temporarily adopted Kia to train the puppy during her first 17 months of life. She was preparing Kia to become a service dog for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind.

Kia — a breed of dog that Hickman calls a “black mix” — is now in New York for the next six months to get additional professional training. Hickman said at the end of the training she will be given to a lifelong owner who is blind. The owner will use Kia’s sense of smell and direction to navigate everyday life.

“It was tough to say bye, yeah, but I knew on the inside that there was someone out there who needs Kia more than I do,” Tristan said. “So I didn’t feel bad she was leaving.”

Then came Samuel, a 10-week-old black Labrador retriever. Hickman got Samuel just as Kia left during the first week of January. It’s up to Hickman and her students to spend the next year training Samuel to sit on command, be housebroken and be prepared to find things like exits, elevators and public bathrooms. When he’s ready, Samuel will go the way of Kia and become a guide dog, too.

“It’s such a rich, rewarding experience to have the dogs with me in class,” Hickman said. “I think it becomes a rich experience for the students, too.”

Eluvia Saucedo, 12, said she was “surprised” at how behaved the dogs have been in class.

“I thought I was going to be so distracted,” she said. “But my dogs at home are more wild than (Samuel and Kia). Kia ignored all of us when we called at her. I remember shouting, ‘Kia,’ and she just looked away from me and ignored me.”

Melvin Prado, 12, said he was also impressed at Kia’s obedience, a level of self-control Hickman said Samuel, still more puppy than guide dog, will achieve one day.

“She was just a really great dog,” Melvin said about Kia. “Sometimes I felt bad for her cause there’s dogs outside running around and she has to do her job. But if she can be patient like that, we can all do it. She does it all her life.”

For Hickman, training the puppies has a special place in her heart.

“Several years ago, my old beagle had to be put down and I wanted another dog,” she said. “It wasn’t fair for me to get a puppy and leave it at home with nobody there. I thought it would be so much better if I had it with me all day.”

Hickman brainstormed a way to bring a dog to class. She said she realized there was educational value in training a dog for the blind after researching guide dog foundations on a whim.

“I thought, ‘Yes, I can do this. I can raise someone else’s puppy,’” she said. “And it would be good for the students, too.”

Then came inevitable attachment.

“After I had Kia for two or three weeks, I thought, ‘I have made a serious mistake because I have fallen in love with this dog and it’s not mine. What am I going to do at the end of the year when she has to go away?’”

Hickman had a chance encounter with a woman who was blind at a Target store nearby. The woman, Hickman said, had a guide dog with her to help her navigate the store.

“We chatted for a few minutes and after I left I thought, ‘This was meant to be,’” Hickman said. “I love Kia. But I didn’t need her. This lady needed her dog to live a good life. So it helped me put things in perspective. It was still very hard to let her go.”

Tristan said humans can learn a lot from their canine counterparts.

“What I learned from Kia is that it takes discipline to actually — not just train her — but be in her shoes,” he said. “I know that sounds strange because she’s a dog. But she has to stay really focused all the time.”

Michael Kelly, 13, agreed.

“They’re really not that different from us,” he said.