MONTVILLE, NJ - A new addition has come to Cedar Hill Elementary and it's not a new student or teacher. It's a two-months-old golden retriever named Oliver!

Oliver is the 19th service dog from The Seeing Eye, Inc.©, in Morristown, trained by school nurse Bonnie Lee DiCola, and the 21st trained at Cedar Hill Elementary.

Oliver is one of five puppies in his litter; all of which are also being trained by The Seeing Eye, Inc., a philanthropic organization whose mission is to enhance the independence, dignity, and self-confidence of blind people through the use of seeing eye dogs.

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"The Seeing Eye puppy training program is one of the district’s oldest and most treasured service learning projects," said Susan Marinello, District Communications Officer of Montville Township Public Schools.

"Many activities take place around the arrival and departure of each Seeing Eye puppy. Students have strong memories associated with The Seeing Eye program at Cedar Hill. The program instills empathy and understanding of others and how dogs (and people) can help people. Students also write letters, poems, stories and notes to the puppies when they arrive and when they go. Additionally, some art projects are centered on the puppies. Students also learn the vocabulary and accepted behavior standards for assisting and interacting with service dogs and their owners."

Cedar Hill has been participating in The Seeing Eye puppy raising program for over twenty years. There are four certified puppy raisers at Cedar Hill: Bonnie Lee DiCola, school secretary Lauri Schmitt, principal Michael Raj, physical therapist Pat Chesney.

“The most important impact this program has is it raises awareness for people with challenges and gives the kids an opportunity to do an important service for the community,” DiCola said.

DiCola is the coordinator of The Seeing Eye program at Cedar Hill Elementary School, and has been a puppy raiser since 1997.  She is also a co-leader for Four-Footed Leaders, a The Seeing Eye puppy raising club in Morris County, and a member of Puppy Tails Seeing Eye Puppy Raising Club.

Puppies trained at Cedar Hill experience a wide range of situations daily. This experience from the active school environment allows them to get used to not being distracted as they perform their duties as a seeing eye dog.

"Oliver is learning not to go near distractions," said third grader Olivia Boeckel. "You always try to help people who need help."

Recently, Cedar Hill students paid one dollar to guess Oliver's name. More than 100 students were able to guess correctly. In total, $571 was donated to The Seeing Eye as a result. Students will chart and graph the guesses as part of the integrated service learning curriculum.

There is also another puppy currently in training at Cedar Hill. It is a 11-month-old black labrador by the name of Marty. This puppy is being raised by Lauri Schmitt, Cedar Hill's school secretary. Schmitt has been raising puppies for two-and-a-half years and belongs to Eyes of Hope, which is an Essex County Seeing Eye puppy-raising club.

“The exposure these service dogs get in this environment is just so great for them,” said Lauri Schmitt.

DiCola had much to say on that note.

"At Cedar Hill, the students, staff, and parents are aware of the dog's purpose to be a Seeing Eye dog," said DiCola.

"The dogs need to learn 'time and place.' The dogs are part of the student body and are raised in a loving and busy environment. The two Seeing Eye puppies are considered Cedar Hill's seeing eye puppies. They are in school to learn basic obedience and socialization. Oliver and Marty learn how to behave in public." 

"Every situation and distraction will make it easier for The Seeing Eye puppies to return to The Seeing Eye for their formal training. The students feel they are making a difference by assisting to raise the puppies in a loving environment. The Seeing Eye puppies are raised with positive reinforcement and love. We do not use treats, we use encouragement and praise. The Seeing Eye Puppies want to please the students and staff."

And the Cedar Hill students, like third grader Daphne Dakos, understand this training as well.

"Oliver is learning to stay calm," aid Dakos.

"We are learning how much time and work it is to raise a Seeing Eye Puppy. You must have patience. Like us, he is learning time and place."

Once their time at Cedar Hill is done, the puppies are sent back to The Seeing Eye for their formal training. Due to their exposure to the frenzied activities in an elementary school setting, they become less distracted by crowd and noises. At Cedar Hill, the dogs are taught things, like a 30-second rule to sit when stopping on command. They also attend classes and school assemblies. They and their trainers also have bus and hall duties, and greet students as they arrive at school. The dogs are also particularly fond of the music classes.

"It is a mutual experience for staff, students, and the Seeing Eye puppies," said DiCola. "The students visualize the eight week old puppy and watch them grow. We as a school send the puppies off happy, well socialized, confident because of the nurturing environment they were raised in, and ready to move forward in their formal training. There are tears when the puppies return to The Seeing Eye, and leave Cedar Hill, but knowing they will be helping a visually impaired person lead an independent life makes it all worth it."

And third grader Kyle Bailey is one who would definitely agree with this.

"Oliver makes me think that if someone needs help, you should help them," said Bailey.

For more information on The Seeing Eye, Inc., visit their website at http://www.seeingeye.org/.

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