An ex-inmate is roaming the halls of Richfield High School.
She is at the service of a 16-year-old girl with a spinal condition that keeps her confined to a wheel chair, a girl who has had 30 major surgeries — including 15 for clubfoot, and a recent kidney transplant. She has no large intestine and no bladder.
To attend school, sophomore Tricia Rummenie requires assistance, including the help of a paraprofessional aid. And now, she has been granted some independence thanks to a lab-shepherd mix named Bailey, who comes to Tricia after some intense training with inmates at Lino Lakes Correctional Facility under a program in which inmates work with dogs to train them as service animals. School staff believe Bailey is the first service dog in the school.
New to her field and 3 years old, she is still learning her commands — there are 45 to memorize — but reports on Bailey’s performance are positive nonetheless. She can pull Tricia up ramps in her non-motorized wheelchair. She can pick up dropped pens and other items, returning them to Tricia’s lap or dropping them in the trash if necessary. She’ll also help remove Tricia’s jacket if needed, or help her get in and out of bed.
These are things people can do, but the point of Bailey is to free Tricia from that dependency. “Yeah, there are other people that can pick up a pencil, but it’s kind of nice to be as independent as you possibly can,” said Lori Peper-Rucks, who started the prison dog training program and gave Bailey some extra training following her release from Lino Lakes.
“It’s kind of nice for her to be able to do that and not have to rely on somebody to help her do everything all the time,” Peper-Rucks said.
Plus, Bailey helps with more than the necessities. “She can do normal teenage things like sneak out and go to Target on her own,” Tricia’s grandmother Pat Rummenie noted. A hill between home and the store used to make that impossible.
Fitting right in
At first, Pat Rummenie was unsure if the school would even allow Bailey. With no precedent for service dogs at the school, concerns regarding allergies and Tricia’s ability to control the animal had to be allayed. Locally and nationally, service dogs are indeed a rarity at schools, according to Shelly Heimer, a representative of Can Do Canines, a Twin Cities organization that provides service dogs to people with disabilities. In fact, she said, it is uncommon for service dogs to ever be placed with people under 18.
So far, reports are that the Bailey-Tricia experiment has begun virtually without a hitch. “It’s gone about as well as you could expect,” Wenschlag said
Students have resisted the number one rule regarding Bailey: Do not pet. “The kids act like she’s been here for 10 years,” the principal said.
At the end of her first day in school with the dog, Oct. 22, Tricia confirmed the lack of hullabaloo. “They seemed indifferent,” she said.
Bailey doesn’t do much to draw attention to herself. “Basically she just sleeps in class and hangs out there for Trish if Trish needs her,” Peper-Rucks said.
Pretty good behavior for an ex-prisoner who was born in a barn. Bailey was found with her mother and a litter of puppies in such an an out-building. She lived with the Rummenies for a year before heading to prison at Lino Lakes, where inmates would work with her constantly.
“The prisoners, they would work with the dog from the time they got up to the time they went to bed,” Pat Rummenie said.
Although the program keeps the identity of the dogs’ end-owners secret from the prisoners, and vice-versa, Tricia’s grandmother would like to meet Bailey’s convict-trainers, even though she knows they may have been found guilty of serious felony offenses. “If the two people who trained her came to the door, I would give them the biggest hug ever and invite them in,” she said.
Following prison, Bailey attended a kind of finishing school — or as Rummenie puts it, a “halfway house” — at Peper-Ruck’s Sunshine Kennels in Luck, Wisc., before being sent back to the Rummenies last month.
The only reported hiccups reported came in the first few days. A cultural and religious conflict arose, Rummenie said, when some Muslim students were taken aback by the dog on the first day. Dogs are seen as impure in the traditional Islamic faith and Muslims are traditionally not to have contact with dogs. Conflict was resolved, though, by placing Tricia and her dog away from those in class who object, said Peper-Rucks, who was with Tricia and Bailey their first day together at school.
Any religious or cultural conflict “hasn’t been an issue,” Wenschlag said.
The third day, Tricia was not allowed on the bus with Bailey. It was enough to enough to bring Tricia briefly to tears when the subject came up later that day, but that problem, too, was resolved and Bailey and Tricia are again allowed on the bus, Pat Rummenie said.
She accepts, “There are going to be snags.”
But in general, Bailey simply helps Tricia live her life, which is as activity-filled as many other teenagers. She is in the robotics and film and tech clubs after school. She leans towards activities that her grandma said are on the “geeky” side.
A fan of Japanese-style animation called anime, the Make-a-Wish Foundation has granted Tricia a trip to Dragon-Con in Atlanta, a massive science fiction and fantasy convention in Atlanta. She has friends in school who would be jealous.
The way Tricia and Bailey have been received “speaks to the Richfield kids,” Wenschlag said. “Richfield kids, they understand each other. They understand all the different situations the kids come from and the needs the kids have.”
Tricia’s grandmother testified to this, too, singing the school’s praises even when she was doubtful Bailey would be allowed.
“Richfield High School rocks,” she said.