Class Is in Session
A unique program gives at-risk teens the opportunity to gain confidence and shape a brighter future as they train service dogs.
It’s two weeks into the new school year at Woodlake Union High School in Woodlake, Calif. At one end of the room stand eight excited high school students. At the other end, eight crated Golden Retriever puppies burst with energy. Gerald Whittaker, who looks a little like Santa Claus with his gray hair, a mischievous grin and twinkling blue eyes, pauses a moment, then releases the puppies. The room fills with the blur of fur, laughter and scrabbling puppy paws.
Over the noise, a lone puppy lets out high-pitched cries. One of the students asks about the puppy that’s still in its crate. “That’s what happens the day you don’t come to school,” Whittaker says. “Your puppy is going to sit in its pen howling.”
The image of a howling puppy alone in its crate is enough to motivate these teens, many of whom are at risk of dropping out of school. Woodlake High is situated in Tulare County, which has one of the country’s highest poverty and unemployment rates as well as a high school dropout rate of 26.1 percent.
Whittaker, Assistance Service Dog Educational Center’s program coordinator, is especially good at identifying teaching moments for both dogs and people. For example, a student came to school one day crying because her mother grounded her the previous night for coming home late. Whittaker said, “OK, I’ll take your dog and put him outside on the front porch. Then I’ll come right back in and we can talk about this.” The girl’s face clouded with concern. “You’re going to put him outside where I can’t see him?” she asked. “What if he gets out on the road or into trouble?” The girl then burst into tears, realizing her mother had been just as worried about her daughter as the girl was about her dog.
Dozens of prison-based dog-training assistance programs exist across the country, but Whittaker and his wife, Donna (a graduate from the Bergen School of Canine Studies in Santa Rosa, Calif.), wanted to work with high-risk high school students before they entered the judicial system. In 2002, the Whittakers founded ASDEC, one of the only programs of its kind in the country. They formed a relationship with Woodlake Union High School, which allowed students to earn high school credit for training service dogs. Classes are held in a nearby rural school house in Woodlake, which the Woodlake School District leases to the Whittakers for $1 every five years. The dogs are housed in outside runs during the day and kenneled in a back building at night. Classes take place first period every day of the school week, so teens have an extra incentive to attend school.
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