David Bearden was out for a walk when a Labrador mix that had jumped its fence attacked his dog. Bearden, 50, is visually impaired and his dog, Isaac, was guiding him down the street near his Brooksville home.
The dog left 21 puncture wounds on Isaac, but Bearden said the owners were not penalized because the dog only bit Isaac once. (Bearden said the law requires more than one bite for a conviction.)
This attack several years ago, combined with 16 other similar incidents over a five-year period, contributed to Isaac's retirement. Isaac became so afraid of other dogs that he could no longer work with Bearden.
Bearden got a new dog. And the new dog needed a name.
This is where Spring Hill Elementary School comes in.
As president of the National Federation of the Blind for Hernando and East Pasco counties, Bearden stresses education. He and his dogs have a special relationship with the students in teacher Karen Mancuso Charlton's community service classes. So, when the time came to name his new guide dog, he asked her students to help.
Bearden has been visiting Charlton's class ever since the teacher read about the attack on Isaac years ago and invited him to speak. Charlton, who teaches about 1,000 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, asked her students to draw a picture of Bearden and his new dog and to suggest a name.
"He wants us to take ownership of the dog. We own this dog with him," Charlton said. "What a great way for these kids to learn responsibility. It just reinforces what I'm teaching."
When the children were done, Bearden had the difficult job of choosing among the hundreds of names submitted, including Bandit, Butterfingers, Buddy, Star, NoNo, Coco, Duke, Peanut, Jackson, Claws, Shadow, Spike and Buzz.
He decided he liked "Coal." Hernando County Commissioner Rose Rocco visited Spring Hill Elementary to present a certificate and a medal to fifth-grader Josh Germani, 10, the student who submitted the name Coal.
Bearden told the children he selected "Coal" because, "Coal is a rock that will burn. It's gray and black and brown." Coal's eyes are those colors, he said, "so I've been told. He's got the color in his eyes and the fire in his heart."
Coal is a 21/2-year-old German shepherd from the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation in Connecticut. A guide dog costs about $60,000 to raise and train in about a three-year period, and Bearden received his new dog through a foundation grant. Every year he travels with the National Federation of the Blind to Tallahassee to lobby for legislation and funding.
"In Hernando County, we're working on making people liable for not containing their pets," Bearden said.
Bearden likes to work with children because it is a good way to reach their parents.
"Children (sometimes) will tell their mothers, 'Don't touch it. That's a service dog,'" Bearden said.
Charlton is in her fourth year of hosting "Mr. Dave,'' as Bearden is known to students. Her students are familiar with how to behave around service dogs, but Bearden's visits provide more than just information about the dogs. He also answers questions about himself.
Charlton teaches good citizenship and compassion in her community service lessons. Although it is important for children and their parents to know how to act around service dogs, Charlton also wants them to learn how to behave when they see a person who may be disabled. Bearden is a willing teaching tool.
"Mr. Dave does not want you to feel sorry for him," Charlton said. "He has a job. He has a home. He has his health. He has four foster boys at home. So, don't feel sorry, just show kindness."
Paulette Lash Ritchie can be reached at email@example.com.