Almost every day during lunchtime, Burlingame University student Justin Entenmann, wearing a baseball cap and dark sunglasses, walks his three-legged Border Collie named Ellie over to a patch of grass next to the senior quad. He throws a neon green tennis ball, and the dog fetches it.
Along with daily walks and games of fetch, Entenmann feeds and pets Ellie. Their close bond is a result of the service dog program at Burlingame University, an institution located on Burlingame High School campus that teaches life skills to students with special needs.
“It makes me feel very happy, being around the dogs,” Entenmann said. “Especially her.”
The program employs one other pooch, a lab-golden retriever mix named Moose. Both are facility dogs trained to work in settings with kids.
“We started using dogs in the program pretty much since the get-go,” said Jenna Smith, the founder of the program.
Initially, the dogs were primarily employed to calm students on the autism spectrum in potentially uncomfortable situations.
“I had a student who was pretty afraid in public, like when we used public transportation, because they take that to and from their job sites,” Smith said. “The noise and the people would bother him, but when the dog was with him, she would sit at his feet and he would just focus on her and pet her. He could deal with the stress of the bus in order to make it to his work site.”
Having to take care of Ellie and Moose teaches students about responsibility, and allows them to experience, as Smith said, “the unconditional love of a pet.”