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A canine classroom companion at Prospect Hill Academy

Posted by Laura Gomez  March 28, 2013 05:45 PM

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Dana Hatic for Boston.com

Second-graders from the Prospect Hill Academy in Somerville read in the library with teacher John Thompson’s service dog, Wexler. Thomson rewards the students with time with Wexler.

Wexler is a gentleman. He sits when he is told to sit, and he stays when he is told to stay. He tolerates young children and loud noises. He opens doors for his favorite people, and carries his own leash. He even knows how to turn lights on and off, and responds to a 46-word vocabulary.

“Wexler is very well-behaved in public,” said John Thompson, his owner. “But my favorite thing about him is his goofiness.”

If you watch long enough, you will see beneath his polished behavior and regal face, Wexler, a 5-year-old black Labrador retriever, does have his goofy moments. When Thompson offers a cookie, drool begin to pool at the corners of Wexler’s mouth. When Thompson orders him to stay and leaves the room, Wexler makes a beeline for the closest person, running up to them and resting his head in his or her lap. And when Thompson returns to the room, Wexler gets so excited that his whole backside begins to wag back and forth.

But Wexler’s best quality is how he helps Thompson live life in a way he never would have considered possible 20 years ago.

When Thompson, now 58, of Arlington, was 24, he was in a motorcycle accident that left him in a wheelchair and forced him to abandon his career as a photojournalist for the Boston Herald.

Wexler is an assistance dog trained by the nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence. CCI is the largest provider of assistance dogs in the United States. Since their founding in 1975, it has placed 3,997 dogs with individuals like Thompson.

The organization breeds and trains its own golden and Labrador retrievers. Once the dogs are 8 weeks old, they are sent to volunteer puppy raisers who teach their wards basic commands and socialization skills, taking the dog everywhere with them during the day.

For Christina Montalbano, 21, a puppy raiser from New Jersey, receiving Wexler was a surprise. Montalbano became involved in CCI because of her brother, who also uses a wheelchair. Wexler was her forth puppy. However, while previous puppies had been planned, CCI asked if Montalbano might be willing to train Wexler at the last minute after her close friend had received Wexler’s sibling.

“He was, from the start, the perfect puppy,” Montalbano said. “He was easy to house train and crate train, quick to learn commands and so well behaved.”

Montalbano trained Wexler for a year and a half, before he was returned to the CCI headquarters in New York. There he was given six months of advanced training and taught more than 60 commands. Only four of every 10 dogs make it through this training, and Wexler was Montalbano’s first dog to make it, passing with flying colors.

Thompson spent 10 years with another service dog named Rangely. When Rangely passed away in 2008, Thompson tried to get by without a service dog. But as time passed, he found it increasingly difficult to perform tasks such as getting dressed in the morning or picking things off of the floor.

In late 2008, Thompson applied for another CCI dog. After waiting over a year, he got a call that they had a dog for him. But to receive an assistance dog, everyone must go through what Thompson called “boot camp” in one of CCI’s state-of-the-art training facilities.

During the first day of training, each individual works with different dogs. At the end of the second day, each person fills out a form with their top three choices.

“Wexler was my first choice,” Thompson remembers, “And they already had Wexler in mind for me, but I didn’t know it.”

The next day, Thompson remembers crying as they brought Wexler, whom Thompson affectionately calls “Wex”, over to his chair. Thompson had been called with six days notice to come to the training because the person who Wexler was supposed to be matched with had broken his leg and would be unable to attend.

“It was real fate that I got him,” Thompson said, shaking his head.

At the end of the training session, Montalbano attended a graduation ceremony for Wexler, handing Wexler’s leash over to Thompson. Although giving him up was difficult, she felt proud that Wexler would have a greater purpose in life.

“What really keeps me going is knowing that there are people like John and the other CCI graduates out there waiting for a dog to give them independence and companionship,” she said. “There is nothing greater than officially handing over the leash of the dog I raised to his recipient.”

Thompson is a teacher at Prospect Hill Academy, a Somerville charter school. He travels between classrooms, working with individual kindergarteners through third graders who struggle with reading, writing, math and attention disorders. He has been teaching for 12 years, and has had a service dog with him for almost every year.

When Rangely died, his students would ask when he was getting another dog.

“One student said that his hope and dream for the year was that Mr. Thompson would get a new service dog,” Thompson said, wiping tears from his eyes. “Needless to say, the kids were thrilled when I got Wexler.”

Wexler is not a trained therapy dog, but he acts like one as he follows Thompson from classroom to classroom. He often lies on a rug in the back of the classroom. Students get to play with him or read to him if they work hard.

“I’ve been called Mr. Wexler more times than I can count,” Thompson said, laughing. “Wex thinks that everyone is on this world so that he can be patted. He’s loveable and goofy, and it’s always Wexler reception time. I thank God every day for him. He’s such a joy and he makes us laugh.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.

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