Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Legend of “Opal” at Tommie Barfield Elementary Lives On

Rumination from the Rock and Beyond

Photos by Sue Keller | Nacho Gutierrez designed the T-shirt they’re all wearing, including Opal’s!

What started as an incentive to introduce the students at Tommie Barfield Elementary to understanding students and adults with disabilities, morphed into something much bigger, better and far-reaching. As the then-principal, there was an awareness spreading across the country of the benefit of service dogs, not only for adults with disabilities, but also for children. The implementation of service/therapy dogs for Veterans came a bit later and has been thoroughly embraced, although the waiting time for placement with any of these groups is painstakingly long. More on that later.

At that time in 2004, Blaine and Janet Parks traveled through Collier County on their Harley Davidson motorcycles with two sidecars for their golden retrievers—Bailey and Max. Their message was to raise public awareness of the need for puppy raisers and foster families. They introduced their dogs in training to the students along with a slide show about “Hogs for a Cause” and how the community could help, including raising the puppies and monetary donations. The students and staff were awed.

The process began to find an assistance dog organization that would work with us at the elementary school to foster a puppy. “Paws with a Cause” in Wayland, Michigan agreed and brought a Labrador Retriever puppy to the school when she was 8 weeks old. The first task was for the students to name her. The criteria were interesting and precise. Since she was born into an “O” cohort group, her name had to start with an “O” and could only be two syllables. They also wanted it to be rather unique and not a common name. Using a common name could be confusing to a person nearby with the same name as you might command, “BLANK, sit!”

Students chose three different names starting with “O” and voted for their favorite, which was Opal. Luckily, when it was submitted to “Paws with a Cause” it was approved. Opal wore an assistance dog in training jacket when she was being trained. She went to school every day and the students loved to see her in the hallways. They were a big part of her socialization as they learned the rules about petting, touching and respect for a dog in training or an official working dog. Lots of students read to her and she became very literate! With supervision, the older students had an opportunity to walk her and reinforce specific commands that she had to learn. Anyone who has owned a Labrador Retriever knows how strong they are, even when puppies, and also how smart and loving they are. They are outstanding assistance dogs, along with another favorite, the Golden Retriever.

When it came time to release her back to the Paws with a Cause organization, we knew it was going to be difficult, and it was. Paws personnel picked her up in Naples and we said good-bye, cried and yet appreciated our time with such a loving pup who was leaving on her mission—to support a person in need. There are hundreds of children and adults waiting for assistance dogs, and thankfully there are more organizations that are stepping up to raise dogs for this purpose. One of those organizations, Golden Paws Assistance Dogs in Naples, is one that is making a big difference for Veterans and disabled children.

Another example would be after the tragic school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School. There was a request for Golden Paws to bring as many dogs to the school as they could because the needs for therapy and comfort were overwhelming. It seems the need for therapy dogs is growing along with societal instability. 

Golden Retrievers are known for their gentle nature, intelligence and their ability to bond with their owners in a strong working relationship. I’m a strong believer in the therapy, medical alerts, life-saving strategies and guide dog roles of trained and certified animals. I’m proud to say that I’ve personally witnessed the Golden Paws training program and participated in one phase of the training to be a puppy raiser once more. The Coastal Breeze also carried an article I wrote about the opportunities that Golden Paws Assistance Dogs is creating for Veterans and disabled children. Because of the growth in their organization, they are moving to the larger, vacated old Harley Davidson store on Pine Ridge Road.

Their first priority is placing a Golden Retriever with a Veteran with specific needs. For example, to open doors, fetch certain objects, provide reassurance when in public or home, wake the person when having a bad dream or respond to people with unique physical, medical or emotional issues. Training starts at 6 weeks—as it did for Opal—and continues for 2 years or more before a match is made with a person. Interestingly, Golden Paws has the dog pair up with the potential client by letting the dog choose. This method has proven to create a stronger bond and better partnership. Their retrievers can be also be paired with a child with disabilities.

Organizations dedicated to raising and training dogs for assistance rely on donations from private and public donor contributions and sponsorships from major companies and corporations which cover the costs of training the dogs to the adoption stage. Golden Paws Assistance Dogs covers the costs of continued training and veterinary care, so there is no cost to the Veteran or child’s family. These costs can be $40,000 or more, which is about half of the costs in other organizations.

In conclusion, please consider donating to a cause that helps our most challenged members of our society and really make a difference. These dogs are in schools across the country helping in supportive, loving ways to decrease stress, encourage reading without judging the reader and contact comfort for those in pain, whether physical or mental.

Opal made such a positive difference in our school, raised awareness of disabilities, helped students and staff through rough times, encouraged other Marco Island families to foster a puppy and still bring smiles to those who remember her and ask me when I’m out and about, “Do you still have Opal?”

Periodically, Paws would send us progress reports about her after we grieved about sending her back to Michigan, but they contacted us 2 years later because her shoulders weren’t strong enough to hold the heavy leather harness to enable work with a vision-impaired client. Joyfully, we took her back and she’s lived with us since 2007, until her passing on March 5th, 2020. We were really grieving an ending this time, but it was an experience of a lifetime and she will live in our hearts forever.

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