February 4, 2012
Guide dog part of life at Homer High School
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Homer High School senior Ellen Wixted walks down a hallway at school Friday with her guide dog, Katerina, who she is training to help the blind.
Below: Katerina, a 17-month-old yellow lab, takes a break during school Friday.
HOMER — The yellow lab named Katerina navigated the halls of Homer High School for the last time Friday, accompanying her trainer, senior Ellen Wixted, as she has for the past year.
She waited calmly while Wixted got books from her locker between morning classes, unfazed by the crowd of students walking past. A few stopped to pat her head or just smiled at her, while staff snapped pictures of her.
Katerina, age 17 months, has been with Wixted since she was 9 weeks old as part of a program where people train puppies to become guide dogs for blind people.
She had her portrait taken for the yearbook’s senior section. It will go next to Wixted’s.
Homer school district officials allowed the dog to spend entire days in the school for a year. Katerina started going to classes with Wixted, after receiving her immunization records. Wixted brought her for half-days, taking her home during study hall, then had her in school for entire days by May.
Friday was Katerina’s final day in school. The Wixted family this weekend will bring her to New York City, where she will be tested to see how well she has learned to do her job without being distracted or getting upset.
The Seeing Eye, which has trained dogs since 1929 to help visually impaired people with everyday life, will take over her final training if she passes the final evaluation. Wixted thinks she will.
“Some dogs are raised by adults and kept home, so being in school has exposed Katerina to a lot,” Wixted said. “She’s a step ahead of other dogs. We did her 10-month evaluation, trying to distract her, and she did well.”
Principal Doug VanEtten said it was a great lesson in diversity for students, as Katerina learned how to behave around lots of people and chaotic situations. Wixted gave presentations about her dog to special education and animal science classes.
New freshmen at the school last fall saw Katerina and wondered why a dog was in school. Some of them thought Wixted was partially blind and needed her.
Wixted said she wanted to try raising a Seeing Eye puppy after her father, Dan, told her about dogs being trained by Cornell University students, accompanying them to class. He is a staff member in Cornell’s Department of Entomology.
Ellen Wixted spent a month observing a training class, then took a six-week course to become certified to train a puppy.
“I want to work with therapy animals, to help special education students,” she said. She is choosing between Case Western University and University of Vermont in degree programs to study psychology and special education.
Wixted spent three weeks at a Romanian orphanage last summer, teaching English and helping in other ways. She is president of Homer High School’s Youth in Government organization and sings in the Ruby Rhythms vocal group.
Katerina spends some days at Cornell, with students who “dogsit” for her.
Wixted said that now the hardest thing will be parting with Katerina after more than a year. Teachers and staff said the dog seemed sad Friday, as if she knew it was her last day.
“Short-timer,” one teacher said to the dog.
“Very short time,” Wixted said.
She said she is not looking forward to Tuesday’s parting with her dog, but it helps to know someone will get Katerina next who really needs her.
“Thinking about that person is the only thing that will help me say goodbye,” she said.
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