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Furry helpers head to classrooms

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Students usually can't get away with claiming a dog ate their homework, but Samir Madden might have a better case than most.

Samir's service dog, Ravi, will accompany the 10-year-old to class this semester at Bonillas Basic Curriculum Magnet School.

Samir, who goes by Sami, is one of only two students in kindergarten through 12th grade taking service animals to school this year, said officials from Tucson-area school districts.

It's Ravi's job to pick up anything Sami might drop on the floor, take him things and get help if Sami needs it. It is difficult — or even impossible — for Sami to do some things for himself because he was born without fully formed limbs.

Sami's mother, Beth Madden, and his classroom aide, Trish McPherson, hope Ravi eventually will provide enough help that the fifth-grader won't need an aide when he reaches high school.

McPherson, who is paid by Tucson Unified School District, helps Sami set up his desk in class and accompanies him to lunch and recess.

One of eight children, several of whom are adopted, Sami spent his first five years living in an orphanage in India.

Sami, whose name means "wind" in Hindi, was born without legs below the knee and with arms that are not fully formed. His right arm extends just past the shoulder. His left arm is longer, ending at about elbow length. It is this arm on which he wears a watch and loops a leash to guide Ravi.

Sami can dress himself, but Ravi has been trained to pull up Sami's pants if they fall too low when the boy is wearing his prosthetic legs. Sami tried wearing a prosthetic arm but found it painful and cumbersome, and it took away all sensation in his arm, Madden said.

Though Ravi has never actually eaten homework, the friendly, blond dog, whose name means "sun," did once eat a library book called "Junkyard Dog," Madden said.

Ravi's mostly good manners resulted from two years of training through Top Dog, a Tucson-based nonprofit agency that teaches people with physical disabilities to train their own service dogs, said Pat Denniston, Top Dog board president. The program is free, but Top Dog sells training manuals.

Another service dog training organization, Handi-Dogs Inc., charges a fee for its programs but offers classes for hearing and visually impaired students as well as the physically disabled. Handi-Dogs also has basic obedience classes open to everyone, said Handi-Dogs Executive Director Pat Clinch.

Service animals are important for adults and children because "somebody else isn't always there" to help, said Top Dog program director Nancy Reynolds, who has taught classes Sami and Ravi have taken.

"Having the dog gives them a sense of independence that every child needs — particularly pre-teens and teenagers."

Keeping control of their animals is often difficult for young trainers, Reynolds said.

"Children have a shorter attention span, and they don't have as clear a vision of their goal as an adult has, so we have to keep getting them back on track," she said.

Once Sami is settled into school, representatives from Top Dog will go to Bonillas and speak to students about Ravi's role. They will emphasize that Ravi is a working dog, not a toy, and the other students must ask permission before petting Ravi, Reynolds said.

Sami's teacher this year, Scott Garreffa, is enthusiastic about having the duo in class.

"I think it will be an excellent learning opportunity for the other kids to appreciate the differences and the strengths that everyone has," he said.

An open attitude toward service dogs didn't greet Amy Heilig, 15, when she first wanted to take her assistance animal, Krackers, to school.

Amy, a sophomore honors student at Catalina High Magnet School in TUSD, anticipates taking her dog to school a couple of times a week this year. She couldn't take Krackers last year because one of her teachers was allergic to dogs, Amy said.

She and Krackers completed Top Dog training in time for Amy to start sixth grade. However, administrators at her elementary school didn't see the need for Amy, who has cerebral palsy, to have both a service animal and a classroom aide, said her mother, Mary Heilig. So Amy had to wait until junior high before Krackers could accompany her.

What some educators don't realize, Heilig said, is that "the dog is there to help you in public. It's there to help you with your daily living skills, not your education."

Having Krackers at school allows her "to minimize my dependence on my classmates and my aide when I need small things," Amy said.

A "level of maturity" is what has allowed Amy to succeed in taking her dog to school, said Top Dog's Denniston. She sees the same maturity in Sami. They empathize with their dogs and understand what they can and can't do. "That's hard for children," she said.