Rather than raising a livestock animal, working at the agriculture shop or growing succulents for a supervised agricultural experience project with Future Farmers of America, San Benito High School incoming senior Alexandria Ramirez wanted something more impactful. She opted to raise a puppy, a first in the school’s program.
This, however, is not just any ordinary puppy. This is a guide-dog-in-training puppy.
For 15 months, Ramirez will be responsible for teaching a puppy, acquired through Guide Dogs for the Blind, socialization skills like potty training and other house manners, proper walking pace and focus. This last skill, Ramirez said, is an important one.
“As a guide dog that’s one of the biggest issues, people coming down perching the dog in high-pitched voice,” Ramirez said.
She said high-pitched voices tend to excite dogs, so guide dogs are trained to, essentially, ignore them.
Other responsibilities in the puppy raising program include attending Salinas Puppy Raisers club meetings twice a month. One of these meetings takes the puppies to busy places like a mall or airport to give them experience with being in different environments. It also provides an opportunity for the club to assess what the puppies have learned in training and to advise raisers on what to work on.
Ramirez got a taste of what her senior year could be like while raising a puppy in a school environment, where the dog will be surrounded by dozens of students several hours a day.
San Benito High officials allowed Ramirez to bring Michelin, a 10-month-old Labrador retriever, to campus for the final three weeks of school. Students’ lack of knowledge about guide dogs at times led them to attempt to get Michelin’s attention during class.
“They don’t understand that he is working and he’s trying to focus,” Ramirez said.
While Ramirez’s time with Michelin is over with his transfer to a new raiser, she received a new pup that she will keep until next summer. And if the name Rebel is any indicator, it won’t be a walk in the park. Ramirez picked up Rebel, a black Labrador, at Guide Dogs’ headquarters in San Rafael on June 6.
When the 15-month raising period ends, Rebel will return to San Rafael to undergo a training and assessment process to determine his ability to assist a visually impaired person. If he does not meet the requirements, he could be reassigned as a therapy dog, an emotional support dog or other related careers.
“At least I know with guide dogs they are going to live a long life and they are going to change somebody else’s life, hopefully,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez was introduced to the puppy-raising program by a fellow FFA member from Gilroy High School. She then reached out to the organization and the Salinas puppy club to familiarize herself with the program and implement it at San Benito High School.
The openness of the school officials surprised Ramirez’s mom, Michelle.
“I was amazed at how enthusiastic the school has been in getting this program going,” she said. “I was expecting a lot more pushback and a lot more questions and resistance.”
With one more year of high school left, Ramirez hopes this program continues to be an option for students after she graduates.
“I want to open up the varieties of [supervised agricultural experience] projects that we provide to kids to get more kids involved in it,” Ramirez said.