High school is a lot more fun for students who are greeted by two tail-wagging dogs and four friendly white rats.
For pit bull mixes Jolie and Remy, Tuesday was a great outing away from a local animal shelter. For students, it was part of their course of study in the veterinary technology program at Parkway West Career & Technology Center in North Fayette.
The dogs really enjoy the attentions of students, said Liz Bortnyik, instructor in the new Parkway West course that started in September. She’s a certified veterinary technician who has worked in the field for seven years. A total of 28 students are enrolled in the course where they are learning to be veterinary assistants.
Pink-eyed lab rats Ruby, Lilith, Pinky and Lana live in the classroom, raised by students who cuddle and pet them, chart their growth and study their nutrition.
Welding students are making a maze, and vet assistant students will teach the rats to run the course. The rats should enjoy that, because they were bred to be smart and social laboratory rats, provided to students of all ages through a program of the Pennsylvania Society of Biomedical Research.
Jolie, 1, a black dog with white chest and paws, is high-energy and playful, but was clearly working very hard to obey the commands of students on Tuesday. Remy, 3, with a red nose that matches her reddish orange coat, is calmer and more laid-back.
Dogs and cats from the Animal Friends shelter have been coming to the school two days a week since January to give students hands-on experience. Every Tuesday at 7:30 a.m., staff from the technical school pick up animals at the Ohio Township shelter. Dogs, and the occasional cat, spend mornings with half of the vet assistance students, afternoons with the other students, and then are driven back to the shelter at 2:30 p.m.
At least two more days each week, students work with Jake, a Labrador retriever/vizsla mix that is Ms. Bortnyik’s pet.
“He is the original guinea pig,” Ms. Bortnyik said, “and he just loves coming here.”
Parkway West students spend half of the day there and the other half at their district high schools in 12 districts: Carlynton, Chartiers Valley, Cornell, Keystone Oaks, Montour, Moon Area, Mt. Lebanon, Quaker Valley, South Fayette, Sto-Rox, Upper St. Clair and West Allegheny.
Tuesday’s lesson with Jolie and Remy included giving them baths, with about 12 students involved in the project clad in maroon scrubs. Special care was taken with Jolie, who recently had stitches removed from her spay surgery.
Then it was time to take the dogs outside for a potty break. Students do that. It’s also their job to clean up after the dogs.
“It’s always been my dream to work with animals,” said Danielle Rowe of Castle Shannon, a freshman at Keystone Oaks. Her family has a German shepherd/husky mix named Luna, and cats Gracelyn and Garfield that they adopted from Animal Friends.
Josh Wuenstel of Green Tree, a 10th grade student at Keystone Oaks, said the vet assistant course is “fun and it looks like a good way to make money while I’m doing cartooning. I’m also an artist.”
Marissa Cook, a senior at Montour, noted she recently learned how to make a “cat burrito.” Using a plush cat toy, she showed how to take a towel and wrap the body to avoid getting scratched. The shelter cats patiently tolerated the burrito treatment, she noted.
Studies include “learning body language” of dogs and cats so students won’t be bitten or scratched by animals that can be stressed or angry at the veterinary clinic, Ms. Bortnyik said. “They learn how to handle animals. One of the first things they learned was how to use gauze to make a muzzle for my dog.”
Pictures of students and their pets adorn a large bulletin board, which includes a picture of Rocco the Pittsburgh K9 dog who was fatally stabbed recently while helping to make an arrest. Students sent a sympathy card to police.
The course is designed as a two-year program, but students may elect to take it for three or four years. They could use the course as a stepping stone to a post-high school course for veterinary technicians, or they could apply for certification as a veterinary technician.
And what happens to the four white rats when the school year ends? They will be raffled to students whose parents would permit them to adopt the rats, Ms. Bortnyik said, “or I’ll take them home for the summer and bring them back next fall.”
Linda Wilson Fuoco: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-722-0087.