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Thursday, October 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Service dog in training learns to adapt by going to Ferris High

Jessica Harpel, center, smiles as the service dog she’s training, Knight, interacts with students during lunch earlier this month at Ferris High School. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Jessica Harpel, center, smiles as the service dog she’s training, Knight, interacts with students during lunch earlier this month at Ferris High School. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Knight is only 15 months old and already he’s in high school; the golden boy started attending Ferris this fall.

He’s no ordinary young man, though. He’s a guide dog in training.

The golden retriever goes to Ferris High School two or three times each week with his trainers, Jessica and Will Harpel, 14-year-old fraternal twins.

“It’s really good training for guide dogs,” said Jessica Harpel. “It helps him get used to kids so he doesn’t freak out.”

Knight officially belongs to Guide Dogs for the Blind. Puppies of Promise in Spokane, a local training club, connected Knight with the Harpels about a year ago. The puppies spend close to a year and a half with a trainer on average before going to intense training in Boring, Oregon, for two weeks and then put into service.

Teens and retirees often make good trainers, said Mikelyn Ward, local club leader.

“Dogs can’t be trained to do the job if they are just kept in a kennel,” Ward said. “They need to be in families, and they need to be exposed to many, many different situations, such as malls, restaurants, schools and busy streets. And dogs have to be exposed while they’re young so they get used to it.”

Knight appears to be learning to stay calm in a setting where excitable people commonly roam. He’s quiet in class. He’s fairly good at ignoring those who try to distract him from his duties on hand, and he doesn’t seek attention.

Before the golden retriever could go to Ferris, the Harpels had to ask their principal’s permission and ask their teachers.

“He’s unbelievable around the kids,” said Principal Ken Schutz, adding, he hasn’t had “one complaint about the dog.”

Will Harpel said, “At first, students were like ‘Oh my God, there’s a dog in the school.’ Now, they are used to him.”

Knight wears a green vest that says Guide Dog Puppy in training, so people know he’s working. If anyone wants to pet him, they have to ask, and they often do.

“It takes a little longer to get down the hallways,” Jessica Harpel said. “Sometimes I say: I gotta get to class.”

Ward added, “The handler can’t let the dog be petted too much or the dog will think he’s just there to have fun and make friends.”

Other than releasing stinky gas fumes during class, Knight is a good furry student.

Ward is working with four teens in two families who have been involved for three years, and “ironically they both have sets of twins,” she said. “A young teen is ideal to do this because a person does need to devote quite a bit of time and they usually aren’t too involved in other activities yet. At least one parent needs to be supportive, too.”

Teen trainers have had dogs to Ferris before. A Shadle Park High School student trained a dog about a decade ago that also went through the high school graduation ceremony with her, Ward said.

The dogs in training act nonchalant about all the attention, but the canine do nothing to thwart it.

Knight “lets students take pictures and videos of him,” said Harpel’s friend, Aundrea Destefano. “It’s really fun to see people’s reactions and just the way Knight acts.”

The golden retriever will go to formal training in March, and exit the Harpel family’s life. Will and Jessica Harpel admit it’s a little hard to see the dogs leave, but knew that when they volunteered.

“I’ve never been one to get so attached I go cry in a corner,” Will Harpel said. “Plus, you get another puppy.”

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