Clearwater students welcome four-legged classmate

Anjuli Davis reports

- In Plumb Elementary School teacher Christina Chapin's classroom, it's back to school for more than just human students this year. Her youngest student is just 7 months old -- and is of the canine variety.

Outside Plumb, Chapin is a volunteer "puppy raiser" and guide dog trainer with Southeastern Guide Dogs. Her newest puppy student, Kaoko, will join Chapin's fourth-grade class while training for his future job as a guide dog. 

Kaoko has been at her side for the past four months -- learning, listening and tagging along for just about everything. With permission from parents and the school district, that now includes coming into her classroom five days a week.

"It's like a jungle gym for Kaoko to learn all these great things," Chapin said.

In a class with 21 kids, one of Kaoko's toughest assignments will be staying on task.

"He's learning so much by being around all these kids. All the different noises, even little things like the fire bell. It might scare him; he might do great. But it's great exposure for him," Chapin continued.

Educators say it's also a valuable opportunity for kids.

"It's a learning experience for them, as well, because they'll learn firsthand what a guide dog does and how to care for an animal that's working. Kaoko's working," Plumb Elementary Principal Sandy Kemp said Wednesday.

The laid-back Lab hasn't mastered his job just yet, but Chapin says she's up for the challenge.

"It's a lot of extra work. I just know at the end of it, it will be so rewarding," she said.

In March, Kaoko will return to guide dog school to finish up formal training and be paired with his forever partner. In the meantime, Chapin says this will be a school year her two-legged students will never forget.

"That's what I want for them, for a memorable year and for them to be very successful. And Kaoko is just along for the ride," she smiled.

Southeastern Guide Dogs said Chapin is the only known volunteer right now in Florida bringing a service dog-in-training into a school classroom. Chapin and her principal hope Kaoko is just the first of many at Plumb Elementary.

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