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A curious classmate indeed

When the room darkened and the United Way video started, all of the students in a Pasadena Fundamental Elementary classroom had their eyes on the television screen.

A black Labrador named Adam was more interested in the teacher's wastebasket, into which he buried his head.

The 80-pound dog is an exchange student of sorts from Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto.

Teacher Kim Thomson signed on as a puppy raiser with the nonprofit organization, which pairs guide dogs with blind and visually impaired people at no charge. For three months, Thomson has been bringing Adam to her fifth-grade classroom.

In February Adam will go back to Southeastern's training center, where he will work with professional instructors for another four to six months. If all goes well, he will then be matched with someone who needs a guide dog.

In class, Adam spends only about a quarter of the time "working," his blue Southeastern Guide Dogs jacket around his chest and sometimes attached to a harness.

That means he cannot be petted or even go to the bathroom until someone takes the jacket or harness off.

Compared to the 40-plus commands he will learn in "doggie college," puppy raisers don't have to do much formal training. They act mostly as foster parents for a year or more, starting when dogs are about 9 weeks old, and help them become "well mannered, obedient, confident and socialized," according to Southeastern's literature.

Adam may already have mastered "confident" and "socialized." His rope toys lie scattered across the floor, including two new ones the students gave him for Christmas.

"Throwing the toys for Adam to chase makes school fun," Philip Martin wrote in a class assignment. "He makes school hard because we have to keep small things off the ground before he eats them."

Olivia Ather agrees. Adam eats things on the ground, she said. Pencils and hats are especially at risk. Still, she said, "It's a good experience to know what a guide dog is like and how they are trained."

"Day after day, Adam does something wrong, but that's all right," Michelle Banks wrote in her essay. "That's why we're here, to make him a better guide dog." When the family Shih Tzu died in November, Michelle said she felt really sad before remembering that Adam would still be in the classroom waiting for her.

After Thomson shooed him out of her trash on Monday, Adam took a nap. When the lights came on again, he made the rounds through the low tables, sniffing pant legs and pockets and licking the occasional face. Students casually touched him as he walked by.

Puppy raisers take their dogs with them everywhere. That is part of the agreement they make with the guide dog school, which also includes meeting evaluators every two weeks. The school pays veterinary bills.

According to Chuck Hietala, who with his wife, Debbie, serves as an area coordinator, puppy raiser candidates must be committed to make the dog part of their lives.

"If you are going to be gone all day while you work 12 to 14 hours at a time, that is not a good environment," he said.

Over the years, several other puppy raisers have been teachers who brought their dogs to class, Hietala said.

Thomson, 46, described herself as a lifelong dog lover who saw a sign outside Ellenton about the school, and grew curious. She took a class to the Palmetto kennels and dormitories, where visually impaired candidates stay for 26 days for free while staffers try to match them with appropriate dogs.

A guide dog's average working life is seven years, Hietala said, and 60 to 75 percent of dogs selected will become guide dogs. (The rest end up visiting nursing homes or are employed in some other therapeutic use.) Southeastern tries to graduate dogs by age 2.

Trainers look for dogs that are big and strong enough to do the job, and are healthy, willing to work, and free of hereditary weaknesses requiring a lot of maintenance.

Those demands have made the Labrador retriever the most popular guide dog, although Southeastern also raises collies, golden retrievers, and retriever-Labradors, or "Goldadors."

German shepherds, Australian shepherds and Hungarian Vizslas also show up on the radar screen. Southeastern Guide Dogs welcomes tours of its facilities for groups of up to 50. Call (941) 729-5665.

Thompson got permission from Pasadena principal Mike Marckese to take Adam to class, and the experiment was set in motion. Monday's "Adam monitor" was Bradley Maller. The 30 students take turns in the position, which includes ensuring that the dog is working at lunchtime.

At Bradley's commands, Adam, blue coat on, sat promptly (with a little help of a hand on his tailbone) at the door, went through the door, and sat again.

"I'm just so pleased to see how seriously the kids take this," Thomson said.

She has taken Adam to Sea World, the Dali Museum and Ruth Eckerd Hall. Thomson met half a dozen other local puppy raisers in December for a performance of Too Hot to Handel by the Florida Orchestra and the Without Walls Sanctuary Choir.

When one of the soloists paused for a breath, Adam and another dog began baying in full throat.

"Everybody turned around," Thomson recalled. "But the man in front of me said, "Well, at least he was on key.' "

As students did exercises in their workbooks for Enterprise Village, Adam found a chocolate gold coin in one of the open cubbyholes where the class stores belongings.

Denzel Conyers, 11, didn't get there in time to rescue his candy.

"Right on the bottom shelf, and you don't think he could smell that?" Thomson asked.

The honeymoon will end prematurely.

Adam is due back at Southeastern in February. Students have asked Thomson if she will get another puppy to raise. The teacher says she is thinking about it.