Service dog "Hamilton" gets diploma & hugs at Ooltewah High - | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Service dog "Hamilton" gets diploma at Ooltewah High

Ooltewah High students with Doug Williams and Hamilton Ooltewah High students with Doug Williams and Hamilton
Doug Williams and trainer Ramona Nichols with Hamilton Doug Williams and trainer Ramona Nichols with Hamilton
Principal Mark Bean Principal Mark Bean
Ooltewah High seniors take pictures at Hamilton's graduation Ooltewah High seniors take pictures at Hamilton's graduation
Ooltewah High seniors at Hamilton's graduation Ooltewah High seniors at Hamilton's graduation

OOLTEWAH (WRCB)-  Ooltewah High School seniors are still three months away from receiving their diplomas, but they got a sneak preview with a very special graduation Thursday morning.

The Class of 2013 witnessed the formal presentation of a diploma to "Hamilton," a Goodwill assistance dog.  The Ooltewah seniors raised the most money of all participating public schools in a $25,000 fundraiser sponsored by the school district.  It all began in 2009, when the seniors were freshmen, and students began raising money to fund the assistance dog "Hamilton," named in honor of the school district.  The project was part of Hamilton County's Character Education Initiative.

The money was used to purchase a Golden Retriever pup that would be raised as an assistance dog, and to finance his care during the lengthy training period.  Hamilton was trained by Goodwill Program Director Ramona Nichols.  Thursday's graduation officially marked the certification of the dog's partnership with Doug Williams.  Williams and his wife Shea attended the ceremony, praising Hamilton for assisting with Williams' mobility and access difficulties.  Williams, who has had to use a wheelchair for nine years, has multiple sclerosis.

Hamilton helps Williams open and close doors, turn lights off and on, and retrieving dropped items.  "I still am amazed at the skills Hamilton has that I don't even know about," Williams said.  "He can help me get dressed, and he even pulls the sheets down at night, and puts them back up in the morning.  He gets rewarded by getting to sleep at the foot of the bed," Williams said.

Ooltewah High senior Taylor Lamunyon said, "I remember when we were in 9th grade, and we were raising money for this program.  We could not envision when or if this would really happen.  It's such a joy to see this family's life enriched by this service dog."  Fellow student Heather Shadrick said, "I was so touched by what I saw today.  We all could use a friend like Hamilton.  Students at Ooltewah really care about each other, and people in need.  I'm so glad we could be a part of this."

Here is additional information on the Goodwill Service Dog program:

Goodwill Assistance Dog Academy (GADA) is a program of Chattanooga Goodwill Industries, Inc., which currently has 13 retail stores spread over its 23-county area covering northwest Georgia and southeast Tennessee. 2013 marks the 90 anniversary of Chattanooga Goodwill Industries, which is a 501-c-3 nonprofit. Goodwill will be opening its 14th and largest retail store in the coming weeks in East Brainerd. This new store in East Brainerd will have a pet boutique and a large community room.

 GADA was created in 2009 as a unique way to increase the independence of children and adults with disabilities. Only about 500 service dogs are placed annually in the U.S., while over 1,200 people apply in U.S. for a canine partner each year. GADA currently has a waiting list of 20 people - all dreaming and hoping for a chance for improved health and independence.

GADA specializes in training mobility service dogs, which are specifically trained for people with physical disabilities. The dogs perform skills such as opening and closing doors, turning lights on and off, and retrieving dropped or need items. Each service dog receives 2 years of training, learns over 90 commands, and is given away at absolutely NO cost (despite a cost of $25,000 per team). In addition, Goodwill provides lifelong evaluation, re-testing, and instructional support for each service dog team.

The benefits of mobility service dogs include increased self-esteem and social interactions and decreased stress and loneliness. Many service dog owners are able to attend school or gain employment as a direct result of their assistance dog. Many service dog owners report improved physical health resulting in fewer doctors visits and reduced healthcare costs. By assisting with daily living activities, service dogs dramatically increase independence.

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