Peoria High students training puppies for service-dog roles

Students at Peoria High School may see several cuddly new additions when they come back to school next year.

Through a new 18-month Puppy Raising Program, 12 students will have a puppy to raise and train every day to become affordable service dogs for military, police, fire and emergency servicemen and women who were injured while on duty.

Students will be assigned a puppy to live with. They will bring the puppy to classes, home and to work as part of their training and care.

The four-credit pilot program is a school partnership with the Foundation for Service Dog Support, a non-profit organization that supports disabled and impaired individuals who have or need a service dog.

Gail Meserve, the lead instructor, will teach students how to train dogs to perform such tasks as opening doors and picking up objects and handing it to their owner. The class will also teach dog safety and care.

Meserve said that through grants and donations, the fully trained service dogs coming out of the program will cost $5,000 instead of $20,000 through a service-dog agency.

C.J. Betancourt, director of the Foundation for Service Dog Support, said the partnership was a wonderful idea and should continue after the first year.

“I am really excited about the program, because I’ve felt it’s been a long time coming,” Betancourt said. “This has never been done before, and I hope to bring it to other high schools in the state.”

Jan Delgado, internship coordinator for Peoria High, said the program is the first of its kind in the district and that participating students will learn not only how to train service dogs but about the community they are serving.

“The students are providing a great service to the community,” she said. “They will have something that will help someone else get their life back.”

Delgado said the first recipient of a student-trained service dog will be Bill Weigt, a Peoria police officer who was shot in the chest in 2005. Weigt is disabled from the chest down.

The class is open only to juniors, and students who sign up must also go through an interview with a four-person panel.

Andrea Ramirez, 16, signed up for the program. She said she knows it will be hard to raise and train a puppy every day but that it is worth it because of the greater purpose it serves.

“Knowing that someone will benefit from all the work I do and the experience that I will get is a good reason to sign up,” Ramirez said. “It works out for everyone.”