City Park teacher Shanda Hickman sits with Samuel. Hickman is training Samuel to be a guide dog.
In Shanda Hickman’s City Park classroom, one thing in the room is definitely not like the other.
While her students are hard at work, a large, black, one-year-old Labrador Retriever named Samuel sits quietly in the corner.
Hickman, a challenge math teacher, volunteers for the Guide Dog Foundation and is teaching Samuel to eventually become a guide dog for someone in need.
Hickman’s interest in the Guide Dog Foundation sparked a few years ago when her beloved beagle passed away. At the time, Hickman was a teacher at Eastbrook Middle School. She approached her former principal, George Kopcsak, with the idea of bringing a training guide dog to school. Kopcsak gave her the go ahead.
Hickman received her first training puppy two years ago. It was a black Labrador female named Kia.
“I told the kids they would have to pay attention to me, or the dog would be going to another room,” Hickman said of her then classes at Eastbrook Middle School. “But they were able to pay attention. The dog just eventually becomes something else in the classroom.”
At the start of the program, Guide Dog Foundation volunteers receive a manual outlining the learning requirements for the dogs. The dogs go to a two-week camp to see how they do without their handler. Once they are around the 18-month range, they go to training. The dogs are given levels of tests during their six-month training.
Labs, Golden Retrievers and a cross of the two are usually the most common breeds used as guide dogs, but Hickman said there are others like poodles and shepherds. The organizations that train the dogs also breed them to insure good quality in both health and behavior. The handler volunteers don’t get paid for their service. However, Hickman pays for Samuel’s food and toys, but the Guide Dog Foundation pays for everything else.
When a blind person receives a guide dog, they are worth around $50,000, but the person in need receives them for free. When it was almost time to give up Kia, Hickman didn’t know if she could do it.
“I thought, ‘What have I done? How am going to give her up?’” she said. “I’d fallen in love with this dog that wasn’t mine and I couldn’t keep her.”
As she was struggling with giving up Kia, she met a blind woman in Target who had a guide dog with her. Hickman’s conversation with the woman provided her with a sense of clarity and peace.
“I get it now,” she said after speaking to the woman. “As much as I love this dog, this woman needs a dog to lead a normal life. By meeting her and understanding that, it makes it doable. It’s not easy, but it’s doable.”
After Kia went through training and was placed with a woman in New York, Hickman traveled to New York to see Kia and her new owner.
In January, Hickman received Samuel. Samuel recently turned one and the two celebrated by eating homemade sugar cookies.
Samuel can sit, stay and lie down. More impressively, he can find stairs, elevators and restrooms in a building even if he’s never been in it before. Samuel is also being taught to be quiet while in public, but Hickman said, “He does snore!”
While Samuel is in public, he always wears a guide dog vest. It’s a sign to him that he is working and must behave a certain way. When Hickman takes him home, he is allowed to be a normal pet.
“That vest comes off, and he is a wild man!” she said.
Hickman takes him everywhere, just like his blind owner will, and she gives him a taste of many atmospheres—the movies, restaurants and exploring parks.
Samuel will be going to his training an April, and Hickman plans on attending his graduation to see him again and to also meet the person he will be placed with.
“I’ll take the summer off,” Hickman said of getting another dog to train, “but then I may get another one next year.”
By Lindsey Derrick, Dalton Public Schools Contributor