Hank leaned in close to Joy St. Peter’s wheelchair and gently took her shoelace in his teeth.
With a tug, the black Lab had it untied. A few more tugs and the shoe itself was off, followed by the sock.
The students in Deanna Kozak’s English class Thursday at Albany Options School watched with approval. “Can he put them back on?” one asked St. Peter.
“No,” she said with a wry chuckle. “We’re working on that.”
St. Peter is the director for The Joys of Living Assistance Dogs, a Salem-based nonprofit that trains service dogs to help people with physical disabilities.
Thursday’s visit to AOS marked the third time the organization has brought its canine clients to visit with the students there. The partnership helps socialize the dogs and teaches the students about interactions with the disabled.
Earlier this year, Kozak’s class read a novel about an angry, alienated teen who made friends with a stray dog. That book led the class to a volunteer day with SafeHaven Humane Society, and prompted Anna Sokolov, AOS’s business to school liaison, to look for other potential partnerships. She learned about the Salem group about two months ago.
“They were looking to do work with kids, and I said, ‘We have those!’” Sokolov recalled.
On Thursday, St. Peter brought 2-year-old Hank and slightly younger Labradoodle littermates Ida, Inga and Indy to demonstrate their service dog skills. The four are due to “graduate” in October.
With the help of the students, the four practiced walking with wheelchairs, taking off shoes and socks, retrieving dropped items (including their own leashes), and bringing items to another person.
With St. Peter’s help, Hank also demonstrated his ability to turn on a light switch by bumping it upward with his nose. He’s still working on turning it off.
People who have trouble balancing are often dependent for their balance on the amount of light in a room, St. Peter explained. With a service dog, a client can get in bed and have the dog turn off the light.
The human students also learned a little about etiquette, such as not to touch either a wheelchair or a service dog without permission, to ask whether a person with disabilities would like help before doing something for him or her, and ways to keep from excluding a person with disabilities from a conversation.
As the school year wraps up, Kozak said, her students are studying what it means to be a hero. In her opinion, people who train a dog from puppyhood and then give it up for service to someone in need more than fit that bill.
“I think they’re real heroes,” she said.