Service puppy goes to school in Highlands Ranch

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Five-month-old Flynn pads through the halls of Highlands Ranch High School with a calm that belies his age, his furry blond brow wrinkled in what appears to be studious concentration.

In fact, his teenage trainer believes he's scanning the floor for scraps of food. It's among the most challenging aspects of bringing a guide dog puppy-in-training to a high school. But a high school — rife with sudden movements, noise, food, odors and the loving hands of students — is an ideal place to train an animal that must learn to filter distraction, believes junior Melissa Petrick.

Petrick, whose family has raised two other guide dogs, also likes the novelty.

“I bring him to school because it's fun,” she said.

And not only for Melissa. Despite a vest that clearly identifies Flynn as a trainee, many students can't resist the lure of a puppy.

“Some kids don't understand they're not supposed to pet them,” Melissa Petrik said. “But most of them are pretty good about him being here.”

Flynn is a candidate for future service with Guide Dogs for the Blind, a California-based organization that provides guide dogs to the blind or visually impaired. He is the third guide dog the Petrick family has raised, each time returning the dog to the agency after about a year of housing, training and loving it. The young dogs then are enrolled in formal training; only about 60 percent graduate and are placed with people who need them.

Melissa Petrick hopes Flynn is among that group.

“You want them to make it through the program,” she said. “When they graduate, we get to meet the blind people. They're so cool and so thankful. That's such a nice feeling.”

Melissa Petrick first had to get permission from Principal Jerry Goings to bring Flynn to school. Goings didn't hesitate.

“You can say `no' to a lot of things, but then you miss out on some many educational opportunities,” he said. “What kinds of opportunities are there for high school kids to have that kind of impact on society? The responsibility, the whole idea of paying it forward? I think it's pretty amazing.”

So does Melissa's mom, Tina, who readily agreed when her daughter asked to take a lead role in Flynn's upbringing.

“I think volunteering and working for a greater good is an important lesson,” she said. “I feel it's important for Melissa to do that, and to model it at school.”

The Petricks are co-raising Flynn with Cindy Barnard, who also lives in Highlands Ranch. The three of them meet regularly with Lone Tree's Dru Anne Marshal, a guide dog puppy-raising leader who guides and assists volunteers.

There is little she can do, though, to prepare them for the day the puppies return to Guide Dogs for the Blind.

“I will tell you that it never gets easier,” Marshal said. “That could be why I'm raising my 19th puppy. It takes a bit of the sting out of it to give up a puppy and get a new one right away.”

For more information on the volunteer program, visit www.guidedogs.com.