Four-legged future leader learning at Smith Middle School

Three girls, followed by a teacher, walk a young dog down a school hall.

The two-legged students are not the only ones growing and learning at O.L Smith Middle School.  One-four legged learner was added to their ranks this year.

Millie, a yellow labrador retriever, is in training as part of the Leader Dogs for the Blind.  The pup spends most of her day with Dara Edgerton, a resource room teacher at Smith, but she also hangs out in other classrooms as teachers request.  Here Millie is learning important skills for her future working life, like being around large groups of people, ignoring noises like school bells, being able to settle quietly without getting attention and not to smell or eat debris on the floor.

“She really has to work on those distractions,” said Ms. Edgerton as she walked Millie through the halls during her prep period.  The teacher is Millie’s host.

While the hope is Millie will eventually be accepted and trained to help a visually impaired person, she serves other purposes at the school while she is growing and learning – working already as something of an all around therapy dog.

One struggling student gets to visit Millie if he is able to complete his work in time, and his success helping to train Millie has given him something to be proud of.  Another student has been working to overcome her fear of dogs by learning to feed Millie treats.  And many times five-month old Mille has served as just a comfort and calming influence for students dealing with issues unrelated to school from disruptions at home to the anniversary of a loved one’s death.

Millie is the second leader dog in training at Smith, and the students and staff have made her their own.

The Student Council held fundraising events, including a movie night, to help pay for toys, treats and extra kennels so Millie can visit other classrooms.  

Parents for every student completed forms to note if their child was allowed to be around Millie or has allergies to dogs.  Each teacher has a list of which students Millie is not allowed to visit.  Students have also learned about dog interactions, like to ask before petting Millie, and to understand that sometimes she is “working” and should not be bothered.

Only about one-third of the dogs in the Leader Dog In Training Program go on to meet all the requirements to become working leader dogs, Ms. Edgerton said.  Ruby, who was Smith Middle School’s first dog-in-training in 2016 not only passed the requirements and final training, but did so well she was selected for the even more elite training to be a leader dog in the deaf-blind program. 

Millie will be back to Smith after the summer vacation, but will head back for leader dog school and formal training next January.

“She is doing as much for us as we are for her,” Ms. Edgerton said.