The teachers and staff at North Whidbey Middle School ended the year with plenty of smiles and laughter, all thanks to adorable, 8-week-old puppies.
The golden retriever/Labrador mix pups were from the breeding program at Summit Assistance Dogs, a local nonprofit that trains mobility service dogs to help people living with disabilities. Sue Meinzinger, the founder of Summit and a couple of trainers, brought the puppies to the school as part of the dogs’ socialization training.
The puppies will eventually be trained to do things such as retrieve dropped items, push buttons, open and close doors, turn light switches on and off, and alert people for help. Many of Summit’s clients have been affected by paralysis from spinal cord injuries or neurological and neuromuscular conditions like cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis.
Meinzinger founded the organization in 2000, when there was only one other assistance dog organization located in Washington state.
“Nationally the average wait time to receive a service dog is two to five years and the Pacific Northwest is no exception,” she wrote in an email.
Erik Mann, an Oak Harbor school board member, used to work for Summit Assistance Dogs years ago. The event was his idea.
“I heard they had a litter of puppies and I said, ‘I know some people who need to see some puppies,” he said.
After the challenges and emotional toll of the pandemic years, teachers may appreciate a little puppy love. Interaction with puppies not only creates joy, but lowers people’s blood pressure and increases endorphins.
“It’s been a hard year and teachers haven’t really had a chance to talk about why it’s so hard and get to express those emotions,” Principal Bill Weinsheimer said. “Teachers have been busy taking care of kids and not necessarily taking care of themselves.”
It was clear as day that the energetic little pooches had a positive influence on everyone present.
“There’s proven science that dogs are good for your mental health,” said Jennifer DePrey, a school counselor. “So this is lovely and I wish we did things like this more.”
This is the first time North Whidbey Middle School has done an event like this.
“It would be great to do with the kids also,” Weinsheimer said.
Mann said he would love for Summit Assistance Dogs to be involved with the school in the future, but this time he wanted to make sure the puppies weren’t too overwhelmed with large groups of people.
“I would love Summit to be connected in our schools,” he said. “Using them for mutual benefit – benefiting the students, benefitting the staff, benefitting the dogs in the program that serve the public.”
Typically, only about 40% of dogs in the program will graduate as assistance dogs.
“It takes a very special dog to have all the characteristics that they need to work out in public,” Meinzinger said.
Three of the puppies will go to other assistance dogs programs — one in Oregon, one in California and one in Bellingham.
“We’re part of a breeding cooperative, together with like 35 other service dogs programs around the world,” Meinzinger said.
When Summit has a litter, a certain percentage of the dogs are distributed to other programs and Summit receives dogs as well, all in an effort to increase the success rate of the dogs. The puppies currently live in Summit’s kennels on Whidbey Island and will soon be distributed to other homes with puppy raisers.
For a certain part of the dogs’ training, they live with inmates at the Monroe Correctional Complex for about six months, although that program is currently on hiatus due to COVID-19.