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Providence Hall teacher also working with four-legged pupils, dancers

Dec 01, 2017 08:00AM ● Published by Jana Klopsch

Hannah Thompson and Gwen as she is just about to board the “puppy truck” to her formal training.

Gallery: Dance [1 Image] Click any image to expand.

By Josh McFadden

From elementary school students, to dogs, to aspiring dancers — Hannah Thompson works with them all. 

For school teachers, spending the day in the classroom is more than full-time work, but Thompson is just getting started. In her free time, she trains guide dogs for the blind and teaches an Irish dance class. 

And she loves every minute of it.

Thompson got her start with dog training back when she was in elementary school. Her mother was involved in the Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), and Thompson and her sister helped out. 

“As a family, we raised dogs for 10-plus years,” she said. “When my sister and I left for college, my family decided to step back from the program. After I finished my degree and began my first teaching job, I decided I wanted to get back into it. I started up again in 2014 with the same club my family was in previously.”

Thompson starts training the dogs when they are puppies. She works with one at a time because puppies require so much on-one-one attention. She and other raisers like herself receive the dogs when they are about eight weeks old and raise them until they are about 15 months old. After that, they head to one of GBD’s two campuses (either in San Rafael, California, or Boring, Oregon) for another three to six months of training. After completing their formal training with the professionals, they are matched with a partner and do another two weeks of training with their partner to ensure it’s a good match and to make sure the team will be successful. Once the dog and their partner are finished with their training together, Guide Dogs for the Blind has a graduation ceremony and invites the raisers to see their dogs again and to meet the handler. 

“It’s what we all are hoping for throughout their training,” Thompson said. “Because I am a teacher and would not be able to manage an eight-week-old puppy in my classroom, I usually raise ‘transfer dogs,’ or dogs that have been started in a different home and then finish the second part of their training with me. I also had the chance to co-raise my first puppy with an experienced raiser so she could help me out.”

The work is time consuming, and it can also be difficult to part with the dogs once they’re ready to head out to their formal training in California or Oregon. Still, Thompson said the training is gratifying.

“I enjoy the tight bonds that are created with our puppies,” she said. “The puppies in training are usually with us 24 hours a day, whether we are at work, home, running errands or enjoying social events. As raisers, we are all dog lovers, so to have our pups with us so much and to be able to see them mature, and hopefully help them on their path to becoming guides, is very rewarding.”

Guide Dogs for the Blind uses Labradors, golden retrievers and lab/golden retriever mixes. Thompson said the group has the highest success rate with labs because they are eager to please, they enjoy working, they can thrive in most climates and they love people.

There are two GDB clubs in Salt Lake County, and they welcome new volunteers at any time. The club’s website is www.guidedogs.com, and if someone is interested in volunteering, they should contact GDB to get the contact information for their closest club.

If elementary school teaching and guide dogs aren’t enough, Thompson is the head teacher at Rinceoiri Don Spraoi, which teaches Irish dance to children as young as 5, all the way up to adults. Thompson started dancing with the group at age 6 and worked her way up to the performing group. She continued to do Irish dance while studying at Utah State University. She even created and taught a one-credit Irish dance P.E. class at USU, instructing the class for four semesters. 

“I really stumbled on it,” Thompson said. “I think I have a little bit of Irish ancestry in me, but not much. My family happened to see this group at a performance, and my mom thought my sister and I would enjoy it. Little did she know that I would still be doing it 20 years later.”

At Rinceoiri Don Spraoi, Thompson currently teaches the Shamrock class, which consists of anywhere between five and 15 students ages 5 to 7. Most students are beginners, though some do have Irish dance experience but want a more performance-based school rather than a competitive environment. Dancers vary from mothers and grandmothers to high school and university students to working professionals and more. There are even a few other classroom teachers in the performing group.

“I enjoy choreographing new pieces for our dancers, collaborating with other dancers to refine steps, but most of all, spending time with our amazing dancers,” she said. 

Thompson doesn’t think about slowing down anytime soon.

“I intend to do it for quite a while longer,” she said. “Irish dance is very much part of my identity, and I would feel lost without it.”

Visit http://www.irishdanceutah.com/ if you’re interested in joining. Beginner classes start at $25 a month. 

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