COPE Service Dogs
These Students are Going to the Dogs – and Raising Their Grades. For students at Humberview Secondary School, training service dogs is a transformative experience.
At 14, Stephanie was barely hanging on at school. The only child of parents who had little time for her and who struggled with demons of their own, she suffered from anxiety and depression, and was a favourite target of bullies. She skipped more classes than she attended.
With little confidence in her own worth, she rarely lifted her head and couldn’t look people in the eye. She was slowly sinking into the drug scene and had lost hope of ever graduating from high school.
That was three years ago. Now, Stephanie (to protect her family’s privacy, only her first name is being used) is barely recognizable as that troubled teen, thanks in large part to her involvement with Canines in the Classroom. This unique program, offered at her Barrie school by COPE (Canine Opportunity, People Empowerment) Service Dogs, has recently expanded to Humberview Secondary School in Bolton.
With poise and grace – and with Buddy, a COPE service dog, by her side – the neatly turned out young woman recently told her story at the Brampton and Caledon Community Foundation’s annual lunch. Through Canines in the Classroom, COPE’s innovative initiative for high school students, Stephanie helped train Buddy for his role as a service animal. The experience transformed her as much as it changed the dogs she trained.
During her four semesters in the program, Stephanie spent two days a week as a student dog trainer, teaching her canine partners up to 90 commands they would need to become service dogs. Along the way she learned what kind of person she had to become to be the partner the dogs needed.
She began to overcome her insecurities and to develop leadership skills, patience and dependability. She improved her marks while learning employable skills and transformed herself from underachiever to proud graduate, joining her classmates on stage to receive her high school diploma.
Since COPE opened its doors in 2000, the organization has enrolled 77 dogs in training. It takes two years and $30,000 to raise and train a COPE service dog. No small undertaking. COPE founder Jane Boake has extended programs into the community to provide benefits not only to service dogs and those who need them, but also to their trainers.
When COPE offered the canine classroom program to Humberview, the school jumped at the opportunity. “When the program was explained to us, it took a nanosecond to agree to initiate it at Humberview,” says Lionel Klotz, the school’s vice-principal at the time. “We understood it would be transformative for some of our students. It was a tremendous opportunity to strengthen our vocational program.”
The Peel District School Board rapidly granted approval. Then, with the enthusiastic support of various school and school board staff, funding was obtained, a fenced training area created, a portable classroom secured and the Canines in the Classroom course was linked to the school curriculum in time for the start of the January 2015 semester.
Barb Koetsier leads the canine-training program at Humberview. With a background in education, including a master of science in education and counselling psychology, she completed a two-year apprenticeship program at COPE and is now the organization’s service dog instructor and manager of the Caledon chapter.
This fall marks Barb’s fourth semester with the classroom program, as well as the ancillary Reading Buddy program, which benefits younger children while extending the experience in the community of the service dogs in training.
Barb overflows with enthusiasm for the work. “It’s not just about how to train dogs,” she says. “The canine program creates a safe place where the student handlers feel supported, and where they feel they belong. My students are learning life lessons here. They learn about bonding and relationships, skills that are applicable far beyond the classroom.”
And the students – even those who have difficulties with social relationships – don’t cut this class. Doug Maskell, head of student services at Humberview, says the canine program gives youth at risk of failing to graduate a reason to go to school.
“This program is instilling a new sense of pride and self-esteem in the students,” he says. “Kids who were regularly skipping classes have an entirely new attitude. They know ‘their’ dogs will be waiting for them Mondays and Thursdays, and the kids wouldn’t dream of disappointing them. This gives them a new connection with the school, a reason to show up.”
The canine program was originally designed for Grade 9 and 10 vocational students, but as participants have made the transition to other classes, some have remained part of the program. Students view the course as an adventure, and as interest grows, there is talk of offering it as a full credit option to all Grade 11 students.
The entire Humberview campus is getting involved. Barb says that a group of students approached her with the idea of forming a “COPE club.” These students enthusiastically spend out-of-school time helping her give out information and T-shirts at local events and generally spread the word in the community about COPE service dogs. She is never without volunteer helpers.
Because the dogs pick up on the emotions of the people around them, Barb challenges the students to be “happy, happier and happiest” when they are in the role of student trainer. As a result, kids on the fringe of staying in school, or struggling to gain acceptance, or dealing with grief, know there will be a lighter mood for at least two days of their school week.
And the dogs are a popular attraction when they show up at the school to offer themselves for stress-relieving hugs during exam week and when students are registering at the beginning of each semester.
Across the Humberview parking lot, at James Bolton Public School, the Reading Buddy program helps relax younger reluctant readers. When student trainers bring a COPE service dog to stretch out on a mat in the gym or a classroom, the youngsters read aloud to the dog – and find the experience less daunting. Dogs aren’t judgemental. And neither are their student trainers.
But the dogs’ training doesn’t just happen at school. Volunteer families take the puppies into their homes and guide them through their critical early years.
Joy, now a calm 22-month-old golden retriever, came to live with Lynn Acri and Doug Maskell and their two teenage daughters in January 2015, when she was eight weeks old. After completing the application process and a home visit, both Lynn and Doug completed an eight-hour puppy raiser course, where they learned grooming skills, feeding routines and how to teach basic commands.
According to Lynn, Doug claimed to be a cat person when they started the process, but their charge soon won him over. He now refers to Joy as his third daughter.
Being a volunteer puppy raiser takes time, dedication and commitment. To maintain consistency in the dogs’ development, puppy raisers must commit to attend continuing training sessions, ensure the dogs are on deck for the two-day-a-week canine program at the high school, fit in veterinary appointments, and attend community events as COPE ambassadors.
At the heart of the training is the knowledge that the dog’s destiny is to be paired with a person with disabilities. The dogs must learn to keep calm and level-headed, and to ignore distractions.
Although Lynn doesn’t want to dwell on the fact that Joy will eventually finish her training in Caledon and leave her family’s care, she likens the experience to eventually seeing her daughters off into the world.
“You do your best, and hope for the best,” she says. “We know Joy will eventually transform someone’s life as a life partner. Knowing we were instrumental in her development will be our ultimate reward.”
And when the training is complete, a dog like Joy will be paired with somebody like Joe Karwacki.
Although Joe is about to retire, he spent years commuting from his home near Barrie to his Toronto job as a CN claims agent. He’s also a dedicated high school coach who started volunteering 14 years ago when his two sons played on their high school football team. Long after they graduated, he stayed on for the love of the game.
The COPE service dog program came into his life after he lost both legs in an industrial accident 12 years ago. He spent 10 days in an induced coma at Sunnybrook hospital, then five days in intensive care, eight months in Sunnybrook’s St. John’s Rehab centre and four months as an outpatient.
As Joe struggled with some of the limitations of his new reality, his wife heard about COPE while working at a local pet store and brought the idea home. Skeptical at first, Joe now speaks with emotion and gratitude about the increased security and independence his COPE dog, Radar, provided over the past 10 years.
One of the challenges of being thrust into the new reality of living with a disability is that it can feel as if the only thing people notice is what’s different. Joe says having Radar at his side helped him overcome that hurdle.
“When I was out in the community with Radar, the focus of attention was on him, not on my disability,” he says.
Joe has been in a wheelchair since his accident, and when Radar came into his life, the dog went to work with him every day. When they were out in the community together, for example, Radar pushed buttons to activate automatic doors. If Joe needed to reach for something without solid support, he said, “Brace,” and Radar provided the necessary stability. At home, if Joe was in the living room and his reading glasses were on his desk, Radar would retrieve them. The TV remote was a command away. Overnight, Radar was at Joe’s bedside.
“The dog was nearby 24-7. I was never lonely, and it doesn’t get much better than feeling his unconditional, nonjudgmental love,” says Joe. “Initially, our relationship was all about voice commands, but as it evolved over the years, Radar learned to sense my needs and respond to little more than hand or head gestures.”
Unfortunately, Joe recently noticed Radar was slowing down and starting to show his age. Reluctantly, the decision was made to retire him, though he remains with Joe’s family as a pet.
For this next phase of his life, Joe is working with Bear, another COPE service dog, one raised in the community by a family like Lynn and Doug’s and trained by students like Stephanie.
A two-year-old black Labrador-golden retriever cross, Bear is young and eager to please. He has now been with Joe for a couple of months, and the two are currently learning from each other. “It’s a major readjustment for each of us,” says Joe. “I have no doubt that we will eventually become a team, but at the moment, I am retraining myself to give voice commands, and Bear is trying hard to pick up my vibes.”
By this past August the two had become comfortable enough together that Joe and his family felt confident about setting off with Bear on a cross-country road trip to Vancouver while Radar relaxed at home in the care of another family member.
Joe has done some motivational speaking with both recent amputees and hospital staff, and speaks on behalf of COPE to service clubs. He figures that with a few more volunteer commitments in the community, he should have enough to keep himself busy and engaged in retirement – with Bear always by his side.
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The photo of Stephanie and Buddy was incorrectly credited in the print version of the magazine. The photo was taken by Kim Jeffery, development/communications officer for COPE Service Dogs.
Learn more about COPE Service Dogs and all their amazing programs.