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Student with Fur Learns the Ropes in TAMU-CC Classroom

December 17, 2015

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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Kimberly Cook’s classroom at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi has gone to the dogs. As part of his training, a future canine companion named Render spends time on campus – as a student himself.

“I must give him experiences in the world that he might encounter with his new owner as a working dog,” Cook said. “It was fun since most of my students didn't realize he was there until I brought him out at break.”

Cook, who teaches Special Education courses as an Adjunct Professor in the College of Education, will have Render, a lab/golden retriever mix, until February 2017.  The two are part of the Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) program. 

“This is our real world experience,” said Dr. Karen McCaleb, Associate Dean in the College of Education and the Program Coordinator for Special Education. “Service dogs have such a place in the field of disabilities and it’s fabulous for our students to get to know the etiquette with service dogs and to be comfortable with them.”

McCaleb says more and more students with disabilities are using service animals, not just those with visual impairments, but for students with a diagnosis of autism, for example.

“We talk about the use of service dogs in the curriculum, but this is an authentic experience that can’t be beat,” she said.

Render will learn 35 commands from Cook before going back to CCI for advanced training.

“After learning to open refrigerator doors, pull a wheelchair, put a bag up on a high countertop, and pick something up off the floor and put it in someone's lap, he'll be ready  to be placed with person with a disability,” said Cook.

This is Cook’s first time training a CCI dog, but not her first experience with one.  In 1994, her son, Spencer, applied for a dog when he was in third grade. It took him a year to get approval. 

Since he was so young, CCI required an adult to be part of the team.  Cook went to two weeks of training with Spencer in California.  

“It is very comprehensive training where they match the person with the disability to a particular service dog,” said Cook. “During the two weeks, they train the person to handle the dog in public.”

Spencer received a second service dog in 2002 when he was in high school, after his first dog passed away. Again, he had to go to the two weeks of training. Cook says while she knows she will get emotionally attached to Render, it will be worth it.

“It will be very fulfilling to see him assist a person to lead a better life,” said Cook.  “I foster fantasies of him being able to pull a person in a wheelchair. He looks like he's going to be very strong and sturdy!”