Proud graduates: Student-dog duo make history in Saanich School District

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As far as bonds go, it doesn’t get much stronger than the one between Owen and Richie Bains.

“Richie’s always the constant that’s always with Owen,” says Nicole Zimmel. Nicole is Owen’s mom and Richie, it should be noted, is a dog. But he’s no average sidekick.

Owen and Richie are graduating high school together, side by side. And while every student needs support, Owen needs more than most.

“He is severely affected by autism, and he’s non-verbal,” says Zimmel. “Though he’s 18 he functions as though he’s about four years old.”

In 2013 Owen received his first support dog, Vermont. Vermont is now 12, retired, and still lives on the family farm. The baton was passed to Richie when Owen was in Grade 6.

“Having a service dog has taught Owen to stop and not to run away, and it’s allowed him to be in a classroom with others,” says Zimmel.

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Owen is 18 and has spent his entire school career in School District 63 (Saanich School District). He and Richie attend classes at Stelly’s Secondary and roam the halls together. When Richie is wearing his support vest he’s all business, but when the red vest comes off, the golden lab is ready to play.

“When other students need a bit of support, they can pet Richie. I think even some of the staff stop by for a quick pet,” laughs Zimmel.

Jessica Klein has worked with Owen for the past year. “He’s a quick learner,” she says. “Being with him every day has brought me joy. Being able to see him smile and learn some skills, it’s been amazing.”

There’s also a bit of history at play. Richie is the first dog to “graduate” from SD63. Despite Richie’s calming influence on Owen, allowing him to feel comfortable in crowds, they won’t be attending graduation ceremonies next week. Instead, they’re hosting a barbeque on their family farm for some special guests.

“Some EAs (educational assistants), some past EAs, just everyone who’s sort of been there for us because it does take a huge community to get this far,” says Zimmel.

The family says they want to congratulate all graduating students, and since nobody’s path is a straight line, having someone to walk it with you is something to celebrate.

SEE ALSO: Therapy dogs to be more accessible in Nanaimo-Ladysmith schools

Owen and Richie are pictured together in an old year book photo. (Submitted)

Jordan Cunningham

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