By Andrea Camarena

At 6 p.m. on Friday, June 9, 16 graduates will walk the stage at Woodlake Memorial Building. But at this ceremony, half of the grads will be walking on all fours.

The Assistance Service Dog Education Center will promote their second class of dogs and trainers from their two-year high school program. The school is a project under the Woodlake Unified [Elementary] School District and is run by the husband and wife team of Gerald and Donna Whittaker.

Three years ago, the Whittakers started the school as a way to get high school kids involved in something positive.

And the results have so far been positive with a collective 68% improvement in GPAs for the 2006 graduating class and a 16% increase in attendance. Donna owes that to the structure and requirements of the program. Students must pass grade checks and have acceptable attendance to go on full-day class field trips that are required for the dogs training.

For the class of 2006, the training began in the fall of 2004 when the eight participating students were paired up with puppies from the school's &#8220B” Litter.

The golden retriever puppies have been trained to respond to a minimum of 90 commands and students taught their respective puppies all commands and have done specialized training for the dog's future placement.

The golden retriever assisted living dogs are in high demand and are used in a wide array of situations ranging from social therapy to full service dogs.

The students spent the past two years training the dogs for a required two hours a day and went the extra distance to work with them after school and on weekends when not required to.

&#8220The students have spent many hours with them,” Donna said. &#8220They've done an excellent job with them. A paid trainer couldn't have done better.”

Students trained the dogs in a variety of tasks including turning on and off lights, taking clothes out of the dryer, retrieving dimes from the floor and opening doors and riding the elevators in public buildings.

&#8220It helps them to work with parenting skills and anger management,” Donna said of the human students. &#8220They become the teacher and start to understand what their own teachers go through.”

The school is housed at the old St. Johns two-room schoolhouse on avenue 216. Unfunded by the state or federal government, the school has utilized donations from local service clubs and the Tulare County Realtor Board to transform the 100-year old building into a functioning facility.

The Whittakers put the project together after retiring from their long careers in Army Corp of Engineers and the Valley Business Bank. The two are also WUHS alumnae and are ecstatic at the communities and school districts support of the program.

The facility has been upgraded to house more than 20 dogs at a time with adequate outdoor space and temperature controlled housing for the dogs in the hot summer months.

The success of the program in Woodlake is making the Whittakers eager to expand the project.

&#8220We want to open up to Exeter and Farmersville and have satellite classes at other high schools,” Donna said.

For now, the popularity of the two-period elective class is on the rise at WUHS.

The school just welcomed their &#8220D” litter of puppies and the applications from students to train the next class of puppies exceeded 25. The Whittakers can only except eight students making the program more competitive.

For those unable to get into the program, volunteers are always needed for non-training duties at the facility.

&#8220Puppy Petters” are volunteers of any age or community that can come in and groom the dogs, pet them or help clean and maintain the facility.

To contact the Whittakers, call the school at 564-7297 or visit www.servicedogcenter.org.

The graduation will begin at 6 p.m. on Friday, June 9 at the Memorial Building in Woodlake.

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