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Canines in the Classroom teaches puppy love and life lessons

Student dog trainers get high school credit and self-esteem

Service dog-in-training King nuzzles into his student trainer Grace Hill, who clearly adores the over-sized retriever puppy.

"King is my best friend and he's helped me get through a lot," said Hill, a grade 12 student at Nantyr Shores Secondary School in Innisfil. 

There's a lot of puppy love in the room when the bell sounds for the Canines in the Classroom program, a unique puppy-based credit course that's part of service-dog charity COPE (Canine Opportunity People Empowerment). 

Teens who face extra challenges in the classroom can enroll in the canine class that gives them an opportunity to learn how to train service dogs.

Students teach their canine partners up to 90 commands including opening doors, turning on lights, retrieving out of reach items and helping with dressing - all tasks to prepare the canines for their future careers. 

The students gain many valuable, life-changing lessons too.  

"I've learned a lot about how to be a leader," Hill said. "They teach us skills that will work with humans as well as with dogs.  I've gotten a lot better with communicating. A lot better with taking action and figuring out what I want to do with certain things."

John Popowich,16, says he gets restless sitting in a classroom and the canine course breaks up the routine while allowing him to get experience for his future career as a dog trainer.  

Having a close relationship with his pup Beacon has also changed him.

"Before I started this program I used to be really shy and I wouldn't talk to anyone. I'd just be in the background. But it gave me confidence," Popowich said. 

Teacher Jane Boake founded Barrie-based COPE in 2000 and started the Canines in the Classroom program in her basement.

The puppy curriculum has been going strong for about 15 years and spread to a number of schools.

"I think I've had maybe 800 students go through the program since the beginning and I would say every kid has taken something very positive out of it and some it just been absolutely life-changing. It's a pretty neat thing to be involved with," said Boake, a high school teacher, mother and dog-owner of three.

The COPE dogs-in-training live with foster families or 'puppy raiser homes' for the two years they're in training before being placed with someone with a disability or psychiatric issues.

Volunteers, like Tracey Baker, pick up the dogs in Barrie and drive them in the COPE van to the high school and then their afternoon training with COPE instructors. 

Baker, owner of ZuZu Fashion Boutique on Dunlop St. East, just started volunteering with the program. 

"I love dogs. Beyond that however, they provide love without condition or judgement and many in our community need this support and companionship. COPE fills that need," said Baker.

The shop owner is so passionate about the puppies she launched the COPE with January at ZuZu fundraising campaign to help build awareness of the organization and the important services it provides.

One of the more difficult lessons the students at Nantyr Shores learn is how to say goodbye.

Boake says the teens are constantly reminded the dogs will eventually belong to someone else. 

"What teens get out of it is worth the difficulty of saying goodbye," she said. 

Hill is struggling to face the fact that her time with her best friend King will end. 

"If he ever saw me crying he'd start licking my face and kissing all the tears off," said Hill, getting emotional at the memory.  "If I was upset he'd lean up against me, like, 'cuddle me, love me, you'll feel better.' His love definitely changed my entire life." 

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Sue Sgambati

About the Author: Sue Sgambati

Sue has had a 30-year career in journalism working for print, radio and TV. She is a proud member of the Barrie community.
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