Service dogs bring joy to the classroom at south Edmonton high school
'I just can't say how Ultra's affected my life enough. She's been amazing'
Edmonton's J. Percy Page High School is home to more than 1,000 students and exactly two dogs.
A black lab named Ultra and a golden retriever named Eddie have become an integral part of the student body.
For Grade 12 student Helen Ma, Ultra has provided a newfound sense of freedom.
The three-year-old service dog is the high school valedictorian's constant companion — and she's not your average pet.
Ultra uses her big wet nose to open doors, fetches Ma's schoolbag with her drooling muzzle and guides Ma's wheelchair through busy hallways. She was trained by Dogs with Wings — an Alberta-based program which trains dogs to help Albertans with disabilities or who may need support in the form of a furry friend.
Diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at age one, a rare genetic disorder which attacks the muscles, Ma relies on a wheelchair to get around and struggles with chronic fatigue.
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She brings Ultra with her to school every day. The portly pup accompanies Ma to the school's most academically demanding classes, where Ma has earned some of the top marks J. Percy Page has ever seen.
Though she's focused and calm when on duty, as soon as her service dog vest comes off, Ultra becomes an affable ball of energy.
"At home, Ultra really likes to take advantage," said Ma. "We have a big family, seven people, and so she goes from one person and gets some treats and then she moves on to the next person and then sits there and gets some more.
"She's gained a little bit of weight since she got to our place."
'A calming effect'
Ultra will leave the school when Ma graduates this week, but Eddie is a permanent resident. Eddie is every student's service dog. The certified assistance animal has been working within the Edmonton public school system for eight years.
The program is run by Charles Gachnang, or Mr. G as he's known by the kids.
In the program, Eddie works with students with medical challenges and cognitive delays. He spends time in the classroom, but also roams around the school as needed.
From the moment he arrives until the moment he leaves, Gachnang and Eddie are surrounded by children.
Gachnang said he sees real value in having service dogs like Eddie in the classroom. These four-legged assistants help put anxious students at ease.
"Eddie does have a bit of a calming effect on the students," he said. "We've noticed that students who may have certain types of anxiety, that being with Eddie, that hanging out with Eddie, will kind of reduce the anxiety and stress."
Grade 10 student Chaiden Muir likes to stop by and see Eddie every day before school starts.
"Yeah, I had a bit of anxiety issues myself, but since Eddie was there it just kind of makes me feel more relief," Muir said. "I have someone to communicate my stress feelings to, even though he's not actually a human being.
"This school experience has definitely been very, very good ever since Eddie's been here."
With files from Kim Nakrieko