After learning how a friend in Gilroy started a Guide Dogs for the Blind project, 16-year-old Alexandria Ramirez wanted to do the same thing in Hollister for her supervised agricultural experience.
She first needed to get clearance from San Benito High School, because the service animal in training would accompany Ramirez to her classes throughout the day.
“FIrst, I presented the idea to the three ag advisers, and they were all on board for it,” said Ramirez, who then introduced her plan to San Benito principal Adrian Ramirez and district Superintendent Shawn Tennenbaum. “They were all supportive of what I wanted to do, and they want to see if this program has the potential to grow as well.”
So Ramirez began to bring Michelin, her yellow lab-retriever “Guide Dog mix in training,” onto the SBHS campus to continue training. Michelin’s attended school with Ramirez from May 20 through the end of the year.
“It did take a little while for them to get used to me bringing a dog to school so often. All my teachers were on board with it,” Ramirez said. “Some of the students weren’t as informed about service dogs, so it was challenging at times. I had to explain to them that he’s not a pet and don’t call him over to you, and little things like that.”
Assistant principal Claire Grissom sent a letter home to high school families notifying them of Ramirez’s project for Guide Dogs for the Blind.
“We ask that you embrace our student’s efforts in raising a puppy owned by Guide Dogs for the Blind and who will be trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities,” Grissom wrote. “This dog will be attending school with the student as part of a volunteer project involved in socializing and training a dog who will go on to perform tasks for people with disabilities.”
Service dogs like Michelin begin training at birth and continue for the first 15 months of their lives before they are matched with a person in need of their support. The main training facility is in San Rafael, where Michelin returned after school ended to complete his training.
For Ramirez’s part, she brought Michelin with her not only to school but wherever she went around town. She taught him “not to get distracted” and “stay focused” while out in the community. Additionally, Ramirez taught the service dog “how to greet people properly, not jump up on people and remain calm.”
“Home life is especially key to their training. They have to be potty-trained, behave well in a crate and not chew on anything,” Ramirez said. “It’s definitely going to be tough [when Michelin goes to San Rafael]. Even though I only had him for a little bit, he’s with me literally every second of every day. I’m going to be sad.”
As a member of the local Future Farmers of America (FFA), Ramirez has raised pigs and lambs to show them at the San Benito County and Monterey County fairs, with some livestock going to market. So, knowing that Michelin is going to a home makes it easier to say goodbye, she said.
“I’m so excited because a lot of kids are asking me how they can do it and how they can get involved,” Ramirez said. “That’s what I want to see: other kids get involved for next year.”
Ramirez, who just completed her junior year at SBHS, is staying involved with Guide Dogs for the Blind as well. She has her next service animal in training already.
“We really want to thank her ag teachers and the school administration for being so supportive and so open to the idea of having these service dogs in training on campus,” said Alexandria’s mother, Michelle Ramirez. “They made the experience very easy. …We are so very grateful everyone was so open and made this happen so quickly.”