Righetti High School has a new student this year who is set apart from the other pupils, and not just because of her trademark green vest — Calista is an 11-month-old guide dog puppy in training, and her teacher is Righetti freshman Sam McDonald.
Sam, 14, is one of two students in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District socializing a future guide dog through the Guide Dogs for the Blind program's Santa Maria Puppy Raisers chapter, which formed in 1990 and trains canines to be service companions for visually impaired and blind individuals.
As Calista's "raiser," Sam has cared for the puppy since she was 6 weeks old, and since late summer has brought her nearly everywhere she goes. Whether it be school, the store, the doctor's office or the barn where she rides horses, Sam brings Calista with the goal of training her to remain calm and focused in different social situations.
By coming to school with Sam, Calista has learned how to calmly navigate crowded hallways, quiet classrooms, and even earthquake and evacuation drills, staying close to Sam's side despite distractions.
"I knew it was gonna be a lot of work, but I didn’t know it was gonna be that much work. It was like having a baby, and I was with her all the time," Sam said, remembering when she first received Calista in January. "I didn’t know how’d she act going in public with us, but she honestly did amazing on the first day, and she was getting lots of compliments."
There are currently three other guide dogs being trained within the Santa Maria Guide Dogs for the Blind chapter, according to chapter co-leader Michelle MacDonald, who is raising Calista' sister Charm. Prior to Charm, she has raised two other guide dogs.
"When I started in 2017, my dog had just passed and I was looking for a way to have a dog in my life and I came across this," she said. "You cry when you give them up, since you have them from when they’re 8 weeks to 16 or 20 months, but then you see them go to a sight-impaired person and the assurance it gives to that person."
Another puppy is being raised by a sophomore at Pioneer Valley High School, and another by a sophomore at Nipomo High School, although the latter has not permitted guide dogs to be on campus.
Mandy, Sam's mom and Righetti's Career Center specialist, said the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District has been open to the idea of having a guide dog on campus for training. This is important, she said, as the district may have a blind or visually impaired student someday who requires a guide dog.
"From the moment I inquired with our school district to find out if it’s a possibility, they have been very gracious in allowing us to have her with us," Mandy said, adding that one of Sam's teachers even made a progress report for Calista to praise her behavior in the classroom.
After the dogs reach around 20 months, they are brought back to the main Guide Dogs for the Blind campus in San Rafael for intensive training, according to MacDonald. Eventually, if they pass the required certifications, they will be paired with a visually impaired or blind individual, or otherwise become a breeder or be adopted.
MacDonald said is grateful for families like Sam and Mandy who commit their time to raising these dogs.
"It’s really all about love and time," she said.