When Sonja Haasper walks down the halls of the science wing at Riverhead High School, the sounds of “awww” and “hi, puppy” echo throughout. The greetings are directed at Fred, a specially bred golden retriever.
Science teacher Haasper is currently training Fred for the nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence of Medford. Once fully trained, Fred will be of service to someone with a disability, assisting with daily tasks.
This is the fifth dog that Haasper has trained since 1999. In 2011, she began training the dogs within the walls of Riverhead High School. She found that the move provided a perfect training ground for the dogs she mentors and has been a tremendous benefit to students.
Each day, as part of his socialization training, Fred stays by Haasper’s side, no more than two feet away, whether it’s peacefully sitting under her desk, walking down the halls or attending assemblies. While doing this, he brings smiles to many students who may be having a bad day.
“He seems to seek out students who need a smile,” said Haasper, who said students know that if they are feeling bad, they can sit with Fred and pet him for a while during their lunch period.
Training a service dog in school has also given Haasper the opportunity to teach students about the importance of service dogs and appropriate behavior around them, including greeting the handler before the dog.
“Many students hadn’t realized that a companion dog is different than a guide dog,” said Haasper.
Haaper’s efforts have inspired others in the district to volunteer their time to train dogs. Barbara Salmiery, a nurse at Phillips Avenue School, has raised several guide dogs for the Guide Dog Foundation of Smithtown in the school. Although it didn’t make the cut as a guide dog, one of the dogs still serves in the school. Every week, Salmiery brings McAuley, a black Labrador, to school for an after-school enrichment reading program in which students can read to him.
Seeing the benefits firsthand, ESL teacher Emilee Raynor has begun the process of acquiring a companion dog for her classroom at the Phillips Avenue School through Canine Companions for Independence. Once she has completed training later this year, she will be given a highly trained dog that will not only provide emotional support to her students, but can also assist with their reading skills by listening and turning the pages of a book.