Assistance dogs graduate from service academy in Merced

Kristi Kay Sullivan was overcome with emotion after receiving her dog “Carl” during the California Canine Academy’s graduation Saturday in Merced.
Kristi Kay Sullivan was overcome with emotion after receiving her dog “Carl” during the California Canine Academy’s graduation Saturday in Merced. vpatton@mercedsunstar.com

There were no mortar boards, colorful gowns or advanced academic degrees to be seen at the recent graduation ceremony inside the county Human Services Agency’s West Main Street office.

However, there was no shortage of happy wagging tails, wet noses, floppy, furry ears and supportive applause.

Members of California Canine Academy gathered with the Human Services Agency on Saturday to hold a graduation for dogs that successfully completed the academy’s assistance dog program. The program pairs local elementary, junior high and high school students with canines. The young people train the dogs to become assistance animals that will help people suffering from a variety of ailments and disabilities. During Saturday’s graduation, five local students turned over golden retrievers they trained to people in need of assistance dogs.

Judy Warren, founder of California Canine Academy, said the program is a win-win for both the students and the handlers in need of an assistance dog. The students learn how to be responsible for the animals, and the new owners benefit greatly from the training the animals have received. Whether it’s pulling a wheelchair, helping to guide a blind person down the sidewalk or picking up a cellphone from the floor, the dogs play a key role in helping their new owners lead a normal life.

Warren said the program instills important character traits in the youths. “The kids learn to become aware of people’s feelings,” Warren said. “Anger management is a big part of it. They don’t take their frustration out on the dog. They learn to control themselves. They are better kids when they end this program, than when they come into it.”

“For the client, they get something that’s going to change their lives,” Warren explained. “These clients will not be the same. Once they start utilizing the dog, what’s going to happen is they become so partnered with them. They become like Velcro. You are one instead of two. These dogs get to be with their owner 24/7.”

The recipients of the assistance dogs are chosen after filling out an application on the academy’s website, http://californiacanine.org. Each dog is trained to help with the specific needs of the recipient, Warren said. The requests for an assistance dog must be approved by a licensed physician.

The student volunteers in the program visit with the animals three times a week after school for an hour and a half over the course of nine months. On the weekends, the group goes on outings with the dogs to places like the mall, in order to get the animals accustomed to working in public places, Warren said.

Biskin Lee of Jamestown received her service dog, Zachary, during Saturday’s graduation. Lee suffers from congenital heart failure and requires a pump for her ailment. Zachary will be able to help Lee by carrying her pump and other items. “He’ll provide stable assistance for me, he’ll pick objects off the floor for me, and will just in general be there all the time ,” Lee said.

Shantel Contreras, 15, who trained Zachary, tried to hold back tears as she handed him over to Lee. Shantel had become a little attached to the dog during the time she trained him. “He’s a loving dog and he likes kisses and hugs,” she said.

Shantel said the program and training taught her important lessons about patience and respect. “It’s not easy training dogs,” she explained.

Chavelle Celestine, 11, who trained a golden retriever named Ziggy, said she will miss the dog. Chavelle said working with Ziggy was an exercise in learning ways to be consistent and patient. “Sometimes we had our ups and downs, but we made it through,” she said. “I am going to do (the program) next year.”

Samone Butler, 15, who trained a dog named Cruz, said she learned lessons about being attentive and relaxed. “The dog is synchronized with your feelings. So if you are frustrated and not paying attention, the dog is not going to be paying attention,” Samone said. “Even when you are frustrated (with the dog), you have to be calm.”

The youth program is a partnership between California Canine Academy and the Merced County Human Services Agency. Karen Stum, a social worker involved with the program, said students worked diligently with the dogs, knowing in the long run the canines would eventually have to be given away. “This is their spotlight to celebrate them, to celebrate their dog and their accomplishments,” Stum said.

For more information about the California Canine Academy, call (209) 723-2777.