Training Guide Dogs

Hometown Heroes, People
on November 4, 2007

Makena Mailer, 4, loves the greeting he gets each morning at The Greenwood School, in Oak Hill, Texas. Waiting inside the door is Clover—a black Labrador retriever—tail wagging and ready to play.

Just for a second, Clover gets a little too friendly. Makena calmly gives a command, “Sit,” and Clover immediately responds. “I like when she listens to me,” Makena says with a grin.

Clover isn’t an ordinary pet. The fun-loving 2-year-old Lab is in training to become a guide dog for the visually impaired. The children—ages 2 to 5—at the home-based preschool help to enforce the rules of her specialized training.

Supervising the interaction between dog and children is the school’s owner, Tracy Schagen, 46, who volunteers as a puppy raiser for San Antonio-based Guide Dogs of Texas Inc. Clover is her second dog; she plans to get another when Clover moves on to advanced training.

A former biology teacher and textbook editor, Schagen left the corporate world to spend more time volunteering and influencing young lives. “Life in a cubicle didn’t fulfill me,” she says. “I’ve volunteered since I was 14 years old and knew something was missing.” She opened The Greenwood School in 2001.

During the next year, Schagen was hit with “empty-nest syndrome.” Her 15-year-old pet Labrador died, and her daughter headed off to college. Soon after, Schagen saw a public television program about service dogs, and became interested in volunteering as a guide dog trainer.

The road to raising a guide dog puppy and teaching preschoolers wasn’t an easy one. While one requirement for a puppy raiser is to introduce the dog to a variety of social settings, the guide dog organization wasn’t convinced that a preschool presented the kind of stimulation it had in mind. But after interviewing Schagen and inspecting the school, the organization gave its stamp of approval.

Schagen eagerly accepted the challenge of managing the children’s interaction with the puppy, and has proven that even very young children can contribute to the training program. But Clover knows that Schagen is “boss” and follows her commands.

In fact, children often are not aware that Clover looks to “Miss Tracy” for confirmation that she must obey a child’s command. “The kids think Clover is minding them, and that’s a great self-esteem boost,” Schagen says.

In addition, she uses the process to teach children important life skills. For example, they learn that the dog must be submissive to them. “We teach children to hold on to personal space and toys in a way that is respectful of the puppy,” Schagen says. “That carries over into how they treat each other.”

They also learn how to react if the large dog licks or nips at them, even playfully: The child is taught to stand up and “make himself big,” turn his back to the dog, and walk away. “I reassure children that they have control over any situation,” Schagen says. “That’s an empowering lesson for them to learn early in life.”

During outdoor playtime, Clover darts around the backyard, tumbles in the sand box, and chases the resident ducks. Philip Sansone, 5, laughs with delight at her antics.

“I love when Clover runs around and around,” Philip says. Later, he affectionately lies on Clover and offers her a bone. When activities move inside, Clover goes willingly into her kennel, a place that the children know is off-limits to them.

After school, Clover visits restaurants, basketball games and movies, wearing a vest to identify herself as a “Guide Dog in Training.” “I take her where unexpected things might happen, so she learns not to get excited in different situations,” Schagen says.

Schagen understands that Clover will leave her in a few months. She recalls that when Stella, her first puppy, moved to advanced training, she felt the same excitement as when her daughter went off to college. “I saw Stella give me a dog-smile when she left. What could make me happier than to see her happy?”

For Schagen, a successful blend of her two loves—teaching and volunteering—has materialized. “This is what I want to do when I grow up,” she laughs.

Beverly Burmeier is a writer in Austin, Texas.