photograph by Marci Lambert
Hannah Melton’s movements are controlled as she looks her squirmy puppy straight in the eye. “Sit,” she says and starts to count. The Lab Golden holds a sit stance for three seconds, earning him praise and a treat. When she repeats the command, the puppy, named Moray, holds the position for five seconds.
He’s making progress, and 17-year-old Hannah, beams. The lesson over, Moray bounds across the yard to roll in the grass. Even a service dog in-training needs to have fun.
Two years ago, this teen started raising puppies for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a California-based nonprofit that enhances the lives of people with disability with its highly trained service dogs. The dogs are valued at $50,000, but become priceless to those who require help with daily tasks.
Moray is the second service puppy to trot into the high school junior’s life. Last summer, she escorted her first dog, Dante, to his basic obedience graduation. “From age 13, Hannah begged to do this,” says her mother, Lorianne. “As we got more involved, we saw the impact that this has on [others] lives.”
Hannah is the primary handler in the household, though her parents and three sisters also went through training. She got her start fostering seeing-eye dogs for Guiding Eyes for the Blind when the family lived in North Carolina; a move to Collierville led to CCI. But her volunteer work is also personal; Hannah’s uncle is a quadriplegic.
Moray arrived just after her first puppy, Dante, graduated from basic obedience training. Both Lab Golden pups are carefully bred to bond well and learn quickly. Hannah tackles basic house training first, then over the next 18 months, she teaches commands that prepare dogs to push wheelchairs, bark for help, even place paws on a counter so they can give store items to a clerk.
With each lesson, Hannah learns more about canine psychology. “Moray and Dante love to learn. If they don’t do something by the third time you tell them, you’re doing something wrong. They have taught me to be patient and persistent.”
Hannah chronicles her puppy raising adventures at dayswithdante.blogspot.com. She started the blog just days after Dante’s arrival. The family had recently moved and Hannah was experiencing growing pains of her own. “Dante was a big part in helping me get settled. It was a rough year getting to know people, and he’s an ice-breaker.”
She takes Moray on daily field trips to stores and restaurants, where he must learn to focus on his handler despite distractions. Many folks wonder what this dog in a yellow vest is doing in a museum. They may try to pet him, but blunders like that send the puppy back in training. “One of our most important jobs is educating others about how to act around a service dog,” she says.
Hannah hopes to continue training pups once in college. Her uncle’s experience “keeps me focused on look what dogs can do for these people.” Her eyes well with tears as she recalls handing over Dante to a new trainer at his basic obedience training graduation in Orlando. “The ceremony is paired with graduation of new teams. As sad as it is, it’s so exciting to go and see people working with their new dogs.” Only 40 percent of dogs make it through advanced training, but Hannah has faith in Dante. At his final graduation, she’ll be waiting with a hug and a treat. She’ll also have the opportunity to meet his new, lifelong partner.