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Canine Class Is In Session

Featured Photo from Canine Class Is In Session

Thanks to the support of current and former Seminole County educators, New Horizons Service Dogs is changing the lives of local men, women, and children with disabilities

Wendy Hartman became a puppy raiser for New Horizons Service Dogs about a decade ago, when one of her children needed community service hours for high school.

“It just snowballed from there,” says Wendy, a Lake Mary resident who recently picked up her 23nd service dog-in-training.
To say Wendy is passionate about being a puppy raiser for New Horizons would be an understatement. This past summer, she left a 23-year career with Seminole County Public Schools to become the nonprofit organization’s assistant director. Founded in 1995, New Horizons breeds and trains service dogs to assist people with disabilities.

“I love the puppies, the big dogs, what our program does, what our mission is,” Wendy says. “I just enjoy the dogs and the people that I get to meet.”

Her enthusiasm is so contagious that Wendy has inspired about a half-dozen other Seminole County educators to become puppy raisers and breeder caretakers.

New Horizons, based in Orange City, works with golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers. At eight weeks of age, the pups are placed with volunteer puppy raisers who are responsible for basic obedience training and socialization. The dogs receive additional training from prison inmates and expert trainers. By the end of their training, which typically lasts two to two-and-a-half years, these smart, eager-to-please dogs know about 80 commands, from turning light switches on and off to retrieving items from the refrigerator.

Most of the New Horizons dogs are matched with adults and children in wheelchairs. The organization also has specialized programs for autistic children, wounded war veterans, and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The dogs, which cost between $25,000 and $30,000 to raise, are provided free to qualified clients who live in Florida.

The Rookie Teacher
Kristie Seitz, Seminole County’s science curriculum specialist for elementary and middle schools, became a first-time puppy raiser for New Horizons several months ago. She and her husband are raising Diver, a golden retriever, and have found it to be an extremely rewarding experience.

“Diver’s social life is top-notch,” Kristie says. “He goes to many events that not only help him learn more, but also help spread the word about the good work that New Horizons does. We have seen how the pups change people’s lives. We will be sad when we say goodbye to Diver, but we know what an important job each dog has in store. It is so wonderful to be part of their journey.”

Team Teaching
During Laura Barnett’s first stint as a puppy share raiser for New Horizons, her primary goal was to avoid undoing what the pup had already learned.

“I didn’t want to mess him up,” says Laura, a secondary science teacher at Greenwood Lakes Middle School.
Wendy Hartman, who was also a teacher at Greenwood Lakes at the time, had been searching for someone to team up with her to co-raise a golden retriever pup named Fender. Laura, who had observed Wendy working with New Horizons service dogs-in-training for years, raised her hand to help.

“Laura is a quick study,” Wendy says. “What’s nice about share-raising is the dog gets two very different experiences, which helps to create more well-rounded service pups.”

The women enjoyed co-raising so much that they didn’t stop, not even when Wendy left Greenwood Lakes to become assistant director of New Horizons. This past summer, Laura and Wendy had the satisfaction of seeing Fender placed with a girl who has cerebral palsy. And, a couple of months ago, they picked up their 14th puppy to co-raise – a black Labrador retriever named Tank. Typically, they co-raise two or three dogs at once, with the blessings of their supportive families.

“Like teaching, puppy raising allows me to make a positive difference in someone’s life, but I don’t have to wait 20 years to see the results,” Laura says. “When I see the transformations that these dogs provide in the quality of life of their person, it feeds my soul.”

A Special Kind of Service
Megan Betche and Danielle Uddin have devoted their teaching careers to working with students who have disabilities. For that reason, volunteering as breeder caretakers for New Horizons Service Dogs is especially rewarding for them.

“I have been teaching individuals with special needs for years, and I love that New Horizons is able to give independence to its clients,” says Megan, an Altamonte Springs resident who is raising Scuba, a golden retriever.

She and Danielle are transition resource teachers for the Seminole County Public Schools Project Search program, which helps young adults with disabilities learn job skills so they can work in the community. Previously, Megan taught autistic students at Greenwood Lakes Middle School, and Danielle was an exceptional student education teacher at Lyman High School.

Danielle is a breeder caretaker for Pita, a golden retriever who gave birth a few months ago to her first litter of puppies. Both Megan and Danielle have seen the positive impact that service dogs have had on the lives of former students and their families.

“The dogs have helped the students be more integrated into the community and more independent at home,” says Danielle, who also lives in Altamonte Springs.

Canine on Campus
Cadbury the golden retriever is a superhero at a private school in Maitland. He helps students in kindergarten through sixth-grade. 

The three-year-old pooch doesn’t leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he does ease students’ test anxiety and listens without judgment while they practice their reading skills. And, he is more than happy to be a best buddy to any child who needs a friend.

The superdog’s handler is Amy NeSmith, the school’s Pawsitive Support Teacher. Cadbury, who was raised by New Horizons Service Dogs, is what’s referred to as a facility dog. Facility dogs assist in working situations such as nursing homes, hospitals, and, in this case, a school.

Amy teaches dog training and animal therapy classes at her school and squires Cadbury around to interact with students in the carpool line, at recess, or wherever else he is needed for support and encouragement.

“Having a dog on campus who’s always going to be excited to see you, who’s always going to enjoy being around you, is helpful – he is not going to be mean,” says Amy, who lives in Altamonte Springs with her husband, their three sons, Cadbury, and a retired therapy dog named Laddie.

Cadbury’s extensive training and friendly demeanor help students in a variety of ways. For example, if a child is suffering from high anxiety, the dog can blanket them, meaning he lays on or very near the student. His weighted pressure helps relieve their anxiety, Amy explains. And if a student is upset and doesn’t want to go to class, Amy and Cadbury will walk with them to the classroom door.

“By the time we’ve gone a few steps, the students are so excited to ask about Cadbury or hold his leash, they’ve forgotten what they were upset about,” Amy says.

The canine is so popular on campus that he has his own trading cards, which the students can collect, and two mailboxes for his fan mail. Kids can also earn Cadbury cash from their teachers for various accomplishments, such as meeting reading goals or being kind to others. The cash can be redeemed for reading time with Cadbury or the chance to walk him around the school.

“I think the power of a dog is huge – there are so many things they can do for us,” Amy says. “I wish more schools did this.”

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