The power of "pettin' and praise'

Published Sep. 4, 1998|Updated Sep. 13, 2005

(ran PC edition)

At the beginning of the class, the students at Dorothy Thomas Exceptional Center were unsure how to do much more than pet the puppies.

An hour later, they were teaching commands_ come, sit, run and lie down _ to dogs that will one day assist elderly and disabled people.

"You guys are champs," teacher Jennifer Wise told her students. "This is your first time. I can't believe how good you're doing."

In addition to his other new skills, Scotty Vyhnanek, 14, got a quick lesson in carpet cleaning. Eder, the 15-week-old dog he was walking, couldn't wait to get outside and left a puddle on the carpet. Scotty wrinkled his nose, blotted the stain with a paper towel and spritzed the floor with an odor cover-up.

All part of the job of the newly anointed dog trainers. Soon, the five students will teach the golden retrievers to turn on lights and open doors for elderly and physically disabled people.

It is a program in which students with truancy problems train dogs, both to provide a community service and to supplement the students' education. It is designed to teach the kids responsibility.

A grant from the state to the school provides $80,000 a year for three years to pay for the program. This is the first such program in the Southeast, and the first time the program has ever been tried in a public school classroom.

The students are part of ADVANCE, the county's dropout prevention program for chronic truants.

The five students in Wise's class will train the dogs every day for two class periods. Wise and the students will each be responsible for training one of the dogs to do a series of simple commands, such as sit, settle and let's go, as well as more complex duties.

On Monday, two of the five students were absent. On Tuesday, two other students didn't show up, and 8-week-old puppies Freeman and Finney did not have trainers.

"You see what happens when someone's absent?" Wise asked the students who came to class. "Someone doesn't get trained."

One student, 12-year-old Kim Terrero, thinks the dog training will make her more willing to go to school.

She is excited about the dog training, and, so far, it has been an incentive for her to go to school. Of the five students, she was the only one present both Monday and Tuesday.

On the first day of training, Wise taught the students to be animated and cheerful when they said "let's go" or "come" to the dogs, as well as how to comb the dogs and brush their teeth with chicken-flavored toothpaste. She also taught them to give the dogs cat food and "pettin' and praise" when they followed an order.

For Scotty, the day involved a repetition of an unsavory activity. The students switched dogs and, within a couple minutes, Scotty's new dog repeated the performance of its predecessor.

The students later switched dogs again. And Scotty's curse seemed to continue, as the third dog sniffed the floor and squatted. But Scotty had learned his lesson. He scooped up the dog and made it outside, just in time.

Pauline Sacks, 13, found out the best way to get a dog to follow orders. After a couple yanks on the dog's leash early in the class, she quickly learned to guide the dogs with commands and rewards. By the end of one day of training, she skillfully led the dogs through a series of commands.

"Sit!" she told Eder. "Good boy." She scratched behind his ears and fed him a piece of cat food.

"Settle!" she told Eder, and he collapsed into her lap, belly up, waiting for his trainer to pet him. She snuggled close to the puppy, scratched his belly and kissed his nose. "Good dog. Good boy," she whispered.