Plan teaches kids to train service dogs

December 29, 2003

Elvis is having a little trouble with the refrigerator door today. The 6-month-old golden retriever keeps at it, though, tugging on a towel tied to the handle until he finally gets the door ajar. Once inside he grabs a plastic cereal bowl in his teeth from one of the shelves and deposits it on a desk across the room. Next, he opens a drawer to hunt for a spoon.

Jessica Glenn is on the team of chronic truants who help train six dogs at a time, including Elvis.
By Chris O'Meara, AP

Jessica Glenn, a 17-year-old with a pair of rings through her bottom lip and one in her eyebrow, praises Elvis lavishly. But she knows there is much work left to do before the gangly pup is ready to be placed with a wheelchair-bound person who might depend on him for such tasks as opening doors, flipping light switches and unloading the clothes dryer.

Glenn is a student at Dorothy Thomas Exceptional Center, a place for chronic truants and others who can't seem to get along at traditional schools. She's found her niche — and perhaps her calling — in the school's unique Kids and Canines program, in which troubled teens spend part of their day training and caring for service dogs.

"I didn't like talking to people," said Glenn, sitting in a wheelchair she uses during the school day so Elvis can get used to it. "I was really quiet. I skipped (school) for like two months straight. They put me in a smaller classroom, and it didn't work. I stopped coming."

By Chris O'Meara, AP
Elvis has been trained by the teens to turn on a light switch.

Three years later she's one of the top trainers in Kids and Canines and helps teach other students. Her furry, lovable charges have helped instill in her new confidence, patience and persistence. She hopes to turn it into a career.

The heart of the program is 53-year-old special-education teacher Jennifer Wise, who started Kids and Canines in 1998 with a grant from the state's Department of Juvenile Justice. (Related site: Training program)

Fifty or 60 youths have since participated in what is the only program of its kind in the nation operating within a public school. It's a registered nonprofit organization now, financed by grants, donations and corporate sponsorships.

Last month, Wise was recognized as one of the nation's most innovative teachers with an Education's Unsung Heroes Award from the financial services company ING. With the honor came a $27,000 grant she'll use to buy a van to tote students, dogs and wheelchairs.

The teen trainers take on a group of six dogs at a time, bought from specialty breeders at about 8 weeks old. Each dog is assigned two trainers at school and goes home at night with volunteer "puppy raisers" in the community.

Training is intense, and there's not much time or tolerance for acting up.

"The kids who are in here have to make commitments to the program," Wise said. "They need to agree to be here every day. They need to agree to follow the rules. It's like a job. I hire them."

She's been forced to fire some, but most embrace the responsibility like they do the silky necks of the rambunctious, slobbery puppies.

"It's not a quick fix, by any means," Wise said. "The kids who stick with it for the duration of the training of their dog do really begin to make changes everywhere in their lives... Their parents notice the differences, their teachers notice differences. They just become better people."

Kari Tolbert, 17, had refused to go to school for about a year until she was placed in the program about three years ago.

"I hated being around a lot of people," she said. "I had bad anxiety. I still do, but not as bad. Being with the dogs and going out in public helped a lot. I've learned patience, a lot. And responsibility."

Dogs are trained at the school for two years. The first ones "graduated" in 2000, and about 20 have been placed with disabled people or are providing therapy in such places as a children's home and rape crisis center.

Bonnie Bergin, founder of the Assistance Dog Institute, gives Wise all the credit.

"She is an absolutely dynamite teacher," Bergin said. "She really loves her kids and believes in them, and that's what I think is making it such a resounding success."

Oddly enough, until Wise applied to start the program she really didn't know much about dogs and had never even owned one as an adult.

"I'm more of a cat person," she said. "But I thought at the time, what a way to reach a kid. Give them a dog to train."