Andrea Cohen’s yellow Labrador retriever has gone to movie theaters, grocery stores and Phoenix Suns games. She’s even experienced the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland. But Horizon High School hallways are off-limits to Elizabeth, the 7-month-old pup training to be a service dog.
Horizon principal Anthony Capuano refuses to allow the puppy into his school because of concerns over hygiene, safety and allergies.
The dog also would be a distraction to the educational process, he wrote in a letter to Cohen’s father.
The family appealed to the Paradise Valley Unified School District governing board, and Andrea Cohen’s friends have gathered more than 600 student signatures, but district officials are standing firm, said spokeswoman Judi Willis.
“We give principals the right and responsibility to provide an environment that they feel is safe and conducive to learning,” she said. “Our primary mission is education.”
Last summer, Cohen decided to train a service dog as her community service project for the National Honor Society, which requires eight hours of volunteer work per semester.
In October, the high school junior received Elizabeth from Power Paws Assistance Dogs, a Scottsdale-based nonprofit organization that provides assistance dogs to adults and children with disabilities.
Cohen, who wants to become a veterinarian, will teach the pup 90 commands from basic obedience to turning on and off lights and opening a refrigerator.
She attends three meetings per month to learn training techniques.
Despite the legalities, Andrea Cohen’s mother, Heidi Cohen, said that other high schools in the Valley allow the puppies, and she doesn’t understand what makes Horizon different.
Power Paws has teen puppy raisers who attend Ahwatukee and Mesa public schools, said the organization’s co-founder Robyn Abels, and Sierra Vista Academy used to run a puppy-training program on campus until funding was cut two years ago.
One student at Arcadia High School is currently training a service dog, although the black Labrador does not come into the classroom on a daily basis, said principal Anne-Marie Woolsey. The principal said she originally had many of the same concerns as Capuano when a student’s parents approached her about the dog last fall.
“We didn’t want to make it disruptive in the class, and then checked for allergies, because that was my big concern,” Woolsey said.
After consulting with a legal department, she decided to give it a shot. So far, the dog has not come to class often and there have been no problems or disturbances.
The dog just sat and looked around, and the students mostly ignored her, according to a teacher.
“Frankly, I believe it is a good experience for our kids to see ‘real world’ that these dogs really help individuals,” she said. “This isn’t a dog that you play with, this is a dog that is training for a very important job.”
The school district recognizes the important work done by the dogs, Willis said, but in this case the principal decided that concerns over safety outweighed the benefits.
“We think there is a difference between a fully trained service dog who is accompanying a student who needs assistance and a puppy in training,” Willis said. “We know that some dogs are successful in completing the training, and others are not. (Capuano) didn’t feel that he would take the chance that safety of students could be jeopardized if this isn’t one of the dogs that ends up making it as a service animal.”
Some of Andrea Cohen’s friends believe all the fuss is unwarranted.
Caitlin Milder, 17, attends Hebrew High School at the Jewish Community Center, where Cohen regularly brings her dog.
“This dog is so well-trained and never causes any problems,” Milder said. She added that the dog falls asleep after coming into class. “Andrea cleans this dog every single night and brushes her teeth.”
The whole situation has annoyed Heidi Cohen, who said that the family’s Jewish faith dictates the highest form of a good deed is one done without recognition, and the least admirable deed is one that everyone knows about.
Andrea hasn’t had much of a choice lately, Heidi Cohen said. Her daughter and her volunteer work have been thrust into the limelight in order to oppose Capuano’s decision.
“It’s just brought us back to the lowest form, “ she said.
Meanwhile, Andrea Cohen is worried that Elizabeth is sitting in a kennel for much of the day instead of learning to navigate a school.
“I’m trying to do this to the best of my ability, and I’m kind of upset that he’s not letting me do that,” Andrea Cohen said of her principal.
The family is scheduled to meet with school officials Monday to discuss the issue.
How service dog training works
• Dogs are bred for temperament and health
• At 8 weeks old, puppies are placed with volunteers
• Puppies undergo five weeks of intensive training
• At 16 weeks, puppies begin accompanying volunteers in public
• Around 18 months, puppies are taken from volunteers and placed with clients
• The client and dog “graduate” and are a certified team
SOURCE: Robyn Abels, co-founder of Power Paws Assistance Dogs. www.azpowerpaws.org