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Canine Companion: Student seeks permission for 'Abe' to come to school

A Three Forks High School student approached the school board at their March 15 meeting seeking permission to bring her 17-week-old puppy Abe to school with her.

Abe isn't just any ordinary dog. He is a Canine Companion in training.

Canine Companions is an organization that trains and provides service dogs to disabled people at no cost to them. Canine Companions operates only one chapter in Montana, based in Big Sky.

Before a puppy can become a service dog, it must receive preliminary training. This training is what Three Forks High School sophomore Mae Partain hopes to provide to Abe.

A volunteer pilot flew Abe, a black lab and golden retriever mix, and another puppy ready for raising to the Bozeman airport on Feb. 14. It was here that Partain received her first dog to train.

Partain did not decide one day that she wanted to raise a puppy. Two years after submitting her application, the organization gave her a dog to train.

Becoming a puppy raiser required Partain to submit an application, interview with the organization, and pass a virtual home visit.

Partain spent the two years working to save money to help with the puppy's expenses. Canine Companions does not cover any of these expenses.

Partain chose to work with Canine Companions because it was the only organization that raises puppies in Montana.

"There's lots of other organizations, but they like their puppy raisers being right by their base," Partain said.

Puppy raisers must submit monthly reports, attend two Canine Companions classes per month, teach a list of basic commands and constantly supervise the puppy.

The Canine Companion puppy must learn 30 commands, such as putting on their vest, making eye contact when their handler calls their name and lying quietly under their handler's chair.

"It's training with an eye towards helping him learn to work with a person with disabilities," Candace Partain, Mae's mother said.

Mae Partain thinks the most difficult command to teach will be "speak," because Abe is not a talkative dog.

The puppy raiser's primary objective is to train a confident and well-socialized dog. Additionally, the puppy raiser must follow a strict daily grooming routine.

"Our job is to give him a happy, healthy home so he is well-attached and well-adjusted," Candace Partain said.

Because Canine Companions need constant supervision, Mae Partain wants to bring Abe to school. This experience will also help expose Abe to situations he may endure as a service dog.

Part of the training includes preventing Abe from developing any fears.

"Mae is really good at that. So she can pick up on what he's feeling and what he needs," Candace Partain said. "I love watching that in her because it's the thing that we all need in life. We all need to learn how to attune to each other."

Mae Partain hopes to have Abe trained well enough before the school board decides at their next meeting on April 19. Currently, Mae Partain has Abe working on 10 commands.

If the school board approves Mae Partain's request, she will start bringing Abe to the after-school program, where she mentors other students. After acclimating him to the school atmosphere, Abe will accompany Mae Partain during the actual school day, starting with just one period at a time.

"He's expected to lay under my desk or right by me and learn how to just lay there and stay," Mae Partain said. "And also walking in a crowded hall and staying right by me and not getting distracted."

So far, Mae Partain's teachers have all supported her bringing Abe to school.

While Abe captivated the school board's attention at their March 15 meeting, they did express some concerns.

Some aspects that worried the board included impacting children with pet dander allergies and the puppy acting out if overwhelmed.

Mae Partain has already thought these situations through. Canine Companions require their puppy raisers to keep their animals well-groomed and bathed. Mae Partain says this will minimize any dandruff exposure at school.

However, Mae Partain still plans to ask her classmates if they have pet dander allergies. The school board suggested that Abe not attend classes where the students have pet allergies.

As for Abe getting overwhelmed, Mae Partain has permission from one of her teachers to put a kennel in their classroom. Mae Partain will put Abe in the kennel until she can take him home.

Additionally, Canine Companions has insurance that will cover any incidents if they occur, but Mae Partain does not foresee this situation arising.

If Abe attends school, Mae Partain says her classmates should ask before petting him. This allows her to get Abe in a calm, attentive position.

In May 2023, Abe will return to Canine Companions for six months of specific, professional training to become a service dog.

Mae Partain and Abe's parting will be bitter-sweet.

"It will be hard, but I mean to me it will be worth it once he–hopefully–is paired with somebody," Mae Partain said. "And we will go see him graduate."

Mae Partain says she hopes to continue training dogs after Abe leaves; however, she may wait until after college to get another puppy.

Mae Partain wants to pursue dog training professionally. Rather than being a puppy raiser, she would work with the raised dogs, training them to complete specific tasks for their assigned handler. Mae Partain would also work with the handler, training them to understand the commands.

While Abe could go on to be almost any type of service animal, Mae Partain wants to specialize in training guide dogs with an organization called Guide Dogs for the Blind.

This requires a 4-year college degree and then another year apprenticeship to learn how to train dogs.

Mae Partain is using this experience training Abe as a sneak peek at what a career in this field would be like.

"I've been thinking of possibly going into a profession training dogs, and this gives me a look into that," Mae Partain said. "And I'm able to help somebody doing what I want to do."

If she has time in the future, Partain may work with Canine Companions again.