Wednesday, August 12, 2009

An Exceptional Team

by Lauren Ross, GDMI, Midwestern Field Manager

Jackie Blahnik with her guide Skippy in a classroom with a group of students

Our dogs are special, we all know that. And as a field manager I am continuously awed by the accomplishments of our teams. Assisting in their travels through life in bustling cities, pastoral farmlands and placid suburbs, I learn our graduates’ stories and view each one as remarkable and unique. Once in a while, though, there is a tale that begs to be shared, or a triumph that deserves to be bellowed from the rooftops. Or at least passed along gently in a quiet narrative…

Take Minnesota native Jackie Blahnik, for example, and her Guide Dog, Skippy.  This dedicated teacher and studious black Labrador retriever graduated from GDB in November of 2007, returning home to the charming community of St. Charles, Minn., just as the last maple leaf fell to the sidewalk and winter began.  Fortunately, much of Skippy’s work was to be done indoors and away from snow, guiding instead through the maze of hallways and stairwells in the school where Jackie teaches.  It was here Skippy discovered that his career was to be much more than he had ever imagined.  

A bit of background:  Jackie’s school is funded by “Head Start,” a national program for enhancing the social and cognitive development of economically disadvantaged children through the provision of educational, health, nutritional, social and other services. Before Jackie left to attend GDB she taught a unit on individuals with disabilities, focusing on blindness and visual impairment.  She talked with her students about how visually impaired individuals may choose to use a white cane or become part of a guide dog team.  And they talked a lot about working dogs.

Once Jackie returned to school with her new guide, the students were fascinated with the tangible example of what they had learned.  They wanted to know more about Skippy’s responsibilities as a guide and the rules that would have to be followed with this special companion. The children were also intrigued by the idea that a dog’s needs could be so similar to their own; teeth that need brushing, hair that needs grooming and feet that need shoes in the winter.  Due to the students’ rapidly growing fondness for the dog, a mailbox was attached to the top of his crate to accommodate pictures and letters addressed to Skippy; this began to enhance the children's literacy experiences. Instead of napping the day away in his classroom crate, Skippy eagerly accepted his new role as mentor and motivator for the Head Start program’s important mission. 

More and more, he was asked to participate in classroom activities. "Story Day with Skippy" was developed, a weekly time set aside for reading to him – usually a book about a dog. And during part of each day in the classroom, “Discovery Time” was taking place, with various educational activities in progress.  Jackie and Skippy toured the room, stopping at each activity so the student could "teach" Skippy about colors, counting, and letter recognition.  

In addition to these responsibilities, Skippy could sometimes be found lying in the “Quiet Reading Castle,” listening as the children read to him; the preschoolers looking at pictures in a book and telling him a story while turning the pages.  Jackie even put together a story book about the dog, “Yippy Skippy and Me,” designed specifically for her students. 

While watching Skippy do his daily doggy stretches, the children discovered that stretching is a good way to relax.  So another classroom activity was developed.  The class – along with the dog - took up yoga practice, fashioned after Skippy’s picture perfect “Downward Facing Dog” pose.  Jackie’s students changed the name of the pose, though; it became known as the “Downward Facing Skippy”, and their favorite yoga pose.  

Skippy’s integral part in the classroom has been a fun, imaginative and very effective way of helping the children to develop their speech, language and reading skills.  Nothing is untouched by the dog’s presence, even snack time has changed: the children formerly enjoyed eating Jif peanut butter, but are now loyal consumers of a different brand.  That brand is, naturally, none other than…Skippy, with Natural Creamy being the preferred variety.  And Skippy the dog joins the children to relish his own treat of Skippy peanut butter – in his Kong toy, of course. 

Recently, Skippy was recognized at an assembly for one year of service with his Head Start school.  He was asked to rise and received an enthusiastic round of applause.  But the best was yet to come.  In April, Jackie Blahnik was announced National Head Start Teacher of the Year.  She received her award at an honorary event in Orlando, Florida, on May 1st.  The book, “Yippy Skippy and Me” was included in the nomination.  This award is a well-deserved recognition of Jackie’s talent as a teacher.

Yes, as a field manager, I am bursting with pride over the success of this team. And maybe I’m biased. But it seems to me that Jackie and Skippy provide indisputable evidence regarding the distinctiveness of our dogs, and the exceptional achievements of our teams.  


  1. There is no better example, than this story, of how a well trained, willing dog can greatly benefit students! Second graders have taken turns practicing reading out loud to my social/therapy Lab weekly for 3 years & their continued eagerness is contagious! Lauren Ross' story of Jackie & Skippy can't help but motivate others to think about training a dog for social therapy work in a school! Many things for an exceptional post!

  2. And what great luck that Skippy was raised in a preschool classroom as well! He was good with kids from the time he was just little and I'm so glad he gets to continue his career in the classroom with generations of students while also working with Jackie.