MANCHESTER — A local school welcomed back one of its former "students" this week.
But it was no ordinary alum — Nacho, a two-and-a-half year-old yellow labrador retriever, was a guide dog in training when he first came to teacher Eric Schatz's first-grade classroom over two years ago.
Nacho visited the Manchester Elementary and Middle School on Wednesday with Kathy Nimmer, an Indiana teacher, author and motivational speaker with whom Nacho is partnered as a guide dog.
A few older students lent a hand in raising Nacho, who was just six months old when he first came to class in January of 2014.
Benjamin James, now in Grade 8, remembers taking Nacho outside when Mr. Schatz was busy with classes.
"I'd carry a treat bag, a little pocket with treats," James said. "We gave him a treat every time we gave him a command."
He and other students, including eighth-grader Robert Guilbeault, helped teach Nacho self-control.
"We had to keep the bag high up so he didn't put his head in the bag," Guilbeault said
Joseph Oullette, now in Grade 6, said they practiced basic commands like "sit," "down," and "do your business."
Nimmer, who is blind due to a rare retinal disease, has been partnered with Nacho since July. She's the 2015 Indiana Teacher of the Year and was a finalist for 2015 National Teacher of the Year. She's also won awards for her anthology "Two Plus Four Equals One" and a book of poetry called "Minutes in the Dark, Eternity in the Light."
"When you had him here at school, Nacho was destined to be a guide dog, but wasn't quite ready," Nimmer said, addressing a group of third graders who were in Schatz's class when Nacho was a puppy.
They were nice to him, played with him, and even distracted him at times. And Nimmer said that socialization made Nacho the guide dog he is today.
"He got used to all of that," she said. "Now he's been in front of a crowd of 2,000 people at one time, and he fell asleep on my feet during my speech. He can do anything, and it's because you helped him be such a good little puppy."
Nimmer and Nacho spent all day at MEMS, starting with a whole-school assembly before meeting with individual grades. Nimmer also will be speaking at the Northshire Bookstore on Friday.
Schatz said Nacho is the fourth puppy he and his wife Tara have volunteered to raise for Guiding Eyes for the Blind since 2007. The non-profit organization provides guide dogs to people with vision loss, as well as service dogs to children with autism. The couple's fifth dog, a German Shepard named Ogden, left for training earlier this year.
Nacho first came to Schatz's classroom in January of 2014, at about six-months old.
"Once he got used to the classroom, I let him off-leash," Schatz said. Nacho was free to walk around and interact with students, who would help make sure their canine classmate stayed out of trouble.
"They'd tell me when he'd pick up something off the floor," Schatz said. Dogs pattern their behaviors, he said, and it's especially important for a guide dog to not pick up bad habits.
Nimmer said one of the biggest factors in matching with a guide dog is walking speed. But demeanor is also important — she needed a dog that was adaptable, calm and easy-going. And Nacho's time in class was an important part of socialization — guide dogs need to be constantly alert when on duty to keep their human partner safe.
Nacho goes nearly everywhere with Nimmer, who said she's been travelling a lot during her year of service.
Nimmer spoke to students about how she has a different way of doing things because she is blind. Nacho helps her cross the street and knows curbs from the elevation change. His harness, she said, is his uniform.
"When Nacho gets his harness on, he's getting ready to do his job," Nimmer said.
She told students to remind adults not to pet a "working dog" like Nacho — the dog could get distracted, but its full attention should be on keeping the human partner safe.
For students who knew Nacho as a puppy, Wednesday was like greeting an old friend.
"He was such a friendly dog," Guilbeault said. "He was nice, and I know he's still nice."
When asked for comment by a reporter, Nacho yawned and rolled onto his back for a belly-rub.
Nimmer will speak at the Northshire Book Store in Manchester on Friday, March 18, 7 p.m.
Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979