BENNINGTON >> Many Mount Anthony Union High School alumni have had very successful careers after graduation, but few have shown the professionalism and poise of Nacho the guide dog.
Nacho, who was raised as a puppy by the Schatz family of Bennington, and his partner, Kathy Nimmer, the 2015 Indiana teacher of the year, are visiting Bennington county this week as part of a whirlwind tour that has seen her give 297 speeches since August, across 14 different states. The pair visited Manchester Elementary Middle School, another of Nacho's "alma maters," on Wednesday, and gave a talk at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester on Friday night. On Friday morning, Nacho and Nimmer visited MAUHS, where he spent much time as a puppy, to deliver a keynote speech and lead two workshops.
Nacho was brought to MAUHS as part of his socialization by the Schatz's son, Rowan. It was there he met Ryan, a fellow yellow lab, who was and is the guide dog of school counselor Eric Caron. According to Caron, Ryan acted as a mentor for young Nacho. "One night," Caron remembered, "We were having dinner, and Nacho was getting a little too silly. Suddenly, there was a commotion, so fast we didn't even see what happened. Ryan said something to him, and Nacho behaved for the rest of the night." On Friday morning, the first time the two dogs had met in years, they immediately recognized each other and reconnected.
According to Tara Schatz, they got Nacho, the fourth puppy they raised in partnership with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, the organization that trains and connects guide dogs with partners, when he was eight weeks old, during the 2014 school year. Once Nacho was ready for socialization, Eric Schatz took him to MEMS, where he teaches first grade, once a week, and Rowan took him to MAUHS. Both schools were extremely supportive. While some teachers were apprehensive about having a dog in the classroom, Schatz said that, in the end, all of their experiences were very positive.
The training paid off very well, said Nimmer. She said that her previous guide dog, Elias, was getting older and was having health problems, and she reached out to Guiding Eyes for a new partner. They had noticed Nacho, and his ability to be calm in chaotic situations, during training, and told Nimmer they had a dog in mind. She met him in July of 2015, and they have been traveling together ever since. "He's been over-the-top incredible," she said, "I've never had a first year this smooth, and its been the most chaotic year of my life." After winning the 2015 Indiana teacher of the year award, and being a finalist in the National competition, Nimmer is on sabbatical, giving speeches and leading workshops around the country.
"He's just not rattled by anything," she said, "and his calm, steady demeanor has helped me be less stressed. He plays like a two-and-a-half year old, but he works like he's seven-and-a-half." She said that a large part of that is thanks to the Schatz family and the Bennington community. "So much of why he is good is these students, these towns, these people," she said, "He's a good guide because of the trainers (at Guiding Eyes), but he's a good dog because of the town."
"They want to play right now, they want to jump up and be dogs," said Caron of Ryan and Nacho, who were each lying patiently at their respective partner's feet, "But this is their training."
For Schatz, who has never re-connected with any of the other puppies she has trained, she said meeting Nacho and seeing how successful he is has been a strong point of pride. "Seeing Nacho again, I feel like I'm never going to stop doing this. This is my path in life," she said. She said she had wanted to train guide dogs from the time she was a child, when she saw a TV movie, "Love Leads the Way," which told the story of one of the first seeing-eye dogs. When she saw a flyer looking for volunteers to train puppies to eventually become guide dogs, about 10 years ago, she thought that would be the next best thing. All four of the dogs the Schatz family has trained graduated from training at Guiding Eyes, which Caron said is very rare. Typically only about 50 percent of dogs make it through the program and are able to become guide dogs. They have a fifth dog there now, Ogden. "We dedicate our whole life to it when we're doing it," Schatz said, "Sometimes that makes us the 'Crazy Dog Family,' but I don't care." The Schatz other son, Gabriel, also helps train the dogs.
"Nacho, in our mind," said Caron, "is a graduate of Mount Anthony."
For those who might be interested in raising puppies for Guiding Eyes, you can learn more at their website, www.guidingeyes.org, or you can contact Dianne Martin, co-regional coordinator of the Capital region puppy raising program at email@example.com.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.