MARY HOGAN ELEMENTARY School paraprofessional Nancy Wollum works with her sixth-grade students and Sable, a black Lab puppy going through training for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Sable has been in the classroom since the beginning of the year and will leave the school for official training at the end of the academic year.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
MIDDLEBURY — It’s recess time at Mary Hogan Elementary School, and Sable eagerly lines up with her fellow sixth-grade classmates in anticipation of a spirited game of soccer on the playground.
And though less than a year old, Sable has a decided kicking and running advantage over other players on the soccer field; she has four legs to their two.
She never growls at a bad call.
Sable, you see, is a dog — and not just any dog. The young black Labrador retriever is being groomed to graduate from her class as a “seeing eye dog” who may one day provide indispensable guidance to a blind man or woman somewhere in North America.
“It’s working out beautifully,” said Nancy Wollum, an ID-4 teaching paraprofessional and Sable’s temporary custodian. Wollum received Sable last summer from Guiding Eyes for The Blind, an organization that trains dogs and places them with sight-impaired citizens.
Wollum became aware of Yorktown, N.Y.-based Guiding Eyes for The Blind around five years ago after seeing one of the organization’s postings at the Ilsley Public Library.
“It was a card at the library on the bulletin board, and it said, ‘Do you want to be a puppy raiser?’” Wollum recalled. “I wanted a dog, but I didn’t want one for a 10-year span. I didn’t know what my life would be like.”
She decided she could manage taking in a puppy on a temporary basis. It would be her responsibility to not only care for the animal, but teach it some basic commands and nurture its gentle demeanor. After around a year, the young dog would be returned to Guiding Eyes for The Blind to move on to the next phase of its training for eventual placement with a sight-impaired person.
“I thought I would give this a try,” Wollum said.
She passed a rigorous screening process and took on her first puppy, who was eventually placed with a sight-impaired woman in Canada. Wollum was so pleased with her experience that she kept her welcome mat out for additional puppies. Sable is the fourth one she has taken in for Guiding Eyes.
Wollum decided to enlist some help for her fourth puppy. And she found a very eager group of young instructors in Phyllis Laliberte’s sixth-grade class at the Mary Hogan school. Laliberte also took a shine to the idea.
“I’m an absolute dog nut,” Laliberte said.
Still, Sable’s acceptance into the class was far from a done deal. Since Mary Hogan has been pretty much off-limits to pets — due to concerns over allergies, among other things — students had to convince ID-4 leaders to let Sable into the classroom.
The students brought Sable before the school board and wrote persuasive letters to Principal Bonnie Bourne — listing pros and cons.
They succeeded, and took Sable’s training on as a community service project.
Twelve-week-old Sable officially entered the classroom this past September, much to the joy of her classmates, who have all played a role in her training. They take turns taking her for a walk, feeding her, seeing that she gets her exercise and making sure she obeys a series of commands that include “sit,” “down,” “here,” “kennel,” “get busy (bathroom break),” “stay,” “off” and “let’s go.”
“These are very basic commands this dog has to have completely down by the time she gets back to Guiding Eyes,” Wollum said.
Children throughout the school have been very good about not over-stimulating Sable, who must maintain a calm and dutiful disposition if she is to become a seeing eye dog.
Students who encounter Sable in the hall have shown remarkable restraint by not loving her up.
“One of Sable’s jobs is to pay attention to only the person at the end of the leash,” Wollum explained. “Those kindergarteners are even totally dedicated to this. They look at her, but they know not to touch her or to talk to her. I’ve had more trouble with the adults than the kids.”
While Sable is an active participant during recess, she is the only student who has permission — and is in fact encouraged — to bag some Zs during instructional time.
“She very conveniently crashes in her crate,” Laliberte said. “She’s very quiet. She snores sometimes.”
But Sable is alert when she has to be. She’s done fire alarm drills and been on a field trip with her classmates.
“I think there are a lot of kids that don’t have dogs that have really appreciated having a pup that greets them every morning,” Laliberte said. “She’s just like a member of the class.”
Students have definitely taken a shine to Sable. They all missed her when she recently took a week off.
“No one wanted her to leave,” said student Samantha Cherrier, who has enjoyed playing “capture the flag” with Sable and helping to tend to her needs in the classroom.
Samantha does not have a dog at home because it would rub her two guinea pigs the wrong way. Her experiences with Sable make her want to get a dog some day. In the meantime, she’ll enjoy her furry classmate and be content with the knowledge her work with Sable may soon benefit someone who cannot see.
“It’s a good experience … and you get to help other people,” Samantha said.
Max Moulton also comes from a dog-less household. His mom is allergic to dogs.
“It makes me feel proud that I helped raise a dog that can help people out so much,” Max said.
Sable has already become attached to her young handlers. She scampers to school each morning and walks home begrudgingly in the afternoon.
“On the weekends, she’s confused,” Wollum said. “She doesn’t know why we’re not (at school).”
Sable will “graduate” with the rest of her classmates next spring; she’ll even be featured in the class picture. After that, Sable will move on to the next in four phases of training that will determine whether she is to make the grade as a seeing eye dog.
Not many dogs make the grade. Since 1956, Guiding Eyes has graduated only around 6,500 dogs to families in need, Wollum noted.
Students have already asked to be kept apprised of Sable’s career once they move on to Middlebury Union Middle School next year.
And students won’t be the only ones who will miss the prized puppy.
“It’s really, really hard,” Wollum said. “Every single time I do this, I think I can’t do it again because it hurts so much to give them up. But I know the woman who has my first dog, and it is such a powerful relationship to know that her whole life has changed 180 degrees because of this dog.”