updated 01/13/2011 AT 5:10 PM ET
•originally published 01/14/2011 AT 7:45 AM ET
The first time Pat Kaynaroglu met one of her pupils, she was taken aback by his instant proclamation.
“I hate you!” he said.
Undeterred, Kaynaroglu asked the boy what he did like. He said he liked dogs. She promised him that they would become experts on dogs together.
Kaynaroglu, a special education teacher in Leadville, Colo., made good on that promise 19 years ago, and ended up becoming an expert on a special kind of canine: the search-and-rescue dog.
“I think I always felt called to service,” Kaynaroglu tells PEOPLEPets.com. “I love to go outside and I’ve always been very bonded to animals, since I was a little girl.”
When she learned that she could spend time with a dog while working toward a service goal, she signed up to start training a puppy for search and rescue. The first partner she worked with was Cody, a border collie. Four years ago, Kaynaroglu paid tribute to him when she started The Cody Project, an after-school program that takes middle school and high school students through the process of training a search-and-rescue dog.
Over the course of the program, which the students can stay in for as long as they’re in school, participants learn to clicker-train the dogs. They play with the puppies and keep them excited about their job, which is to find and rescue people. The students hide in tunnels that they build together, they read about how to be safe around dogs and even learn basic first aid for dogs.
“I think their self-esteem immediately jumps,” Kaynaroglu says. “This makes learning real. This makes you invested in your community. This puts your skills as a builder or an artist to real use. What they’re doing really matters.”
Recently, Kaynaroglu applied for a grant through the Kids In Need Foundation and was a recipient of one of the foundation’s Teacher of the Year awards. She also received a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant through the federal government. Thanks to those two awards, she has been able to add a tremendous amount to the program (the hot dogs she uses for training alone take up a big chunk of her budget).
One of Kaynaroglu’s students has gone on to college, where she is studying to become a forensic scientist.
“She wants to have a search dog to use in her career,” Kaynaroglu says. “She came back during a break and volunteered in my special ed classroom and then with the Cody Project that evening.”
Kaynaroglu’s hope is to see more programs like the Cody Project take off across the country. “It’s great that we get our search dogs trained,” she says, “and it’s great that we have kids feeling better about themselves.”
See more heart-warming animal stories on PEOPLEPets.com:
Fostering a Pet for the Holidays: One Parent’s Story
For Teenager with Disability, Every Day Is Easier with Her Canine Companion