Meet Aziza, this year's star of 'Dancing with the Stars.' Aziza is an LHS grad, sort of?

By Ed Martin, Editor

Lemoore High School’s Guide Dog Puppy Raisers, a popular and influential program on the school’s campus since 1989, keeps on giving. Over the years, hundreds of prospective guide dogs have graduated – trained by local students – and then gone on to bring guidance, joy, and above all, service, to the visually impaired.

Aziza is a happy yellow Labrador retriever trained partly at Lemoore High School and currently serves as a guide dog for Paralympic Skier Danelle Umstead, who is starring on "Dancing with the Stars."
Aziza is a happy yellow Labrador retriever trained partly at Lemoore High School and currently serves as a guide dog for Paralympic Skier Danelle Umstead, who is starring on "Dancing with the Stars."
Photo Courtesy Sydney Darter

Lemoore’s nationally known program received even more notice recently when one of its graduates, a handsome pooch by the name of Aziza, transformed herself into something of a local celebrity thanks to the dog's current owner, visually-impaired Paralympic skier Danelle Umstead, a talented dancer and contestant on the top-rated “Dancing with the Stars.” Aziza has been at Umstead’s side since 2013 shortly after beginning her training with Lemoore’s Puppy Raisers only a year before in Lemoore.

Aziza, a handsome, friendly, yellow Labrador retriever, made a surprise appearance on the show’s first episode, though it wasn’t for her dancing. She’s leaving the dancing to Umstead. Aziza seems content watching from the sidelines.

Aziza initially was raised at LHS with five other frisky puppies, later transferring to an FFA Chapter in Salt Lake City to complete their training. Two of her litter mates also started their training in Lemoore and graduated as working guides.

Aziza was just one of six puppies the local FFA began training in 2012 as part of its highly successful program. “We started six puppies in 2012, the beginning of the school year,” remembered Lemoore High School’s Mary Beth Hearn, an FFA instructor and the founder of Lemoore’s Guide Dog Puppy Raisers. “We started six dogs, including Aziza, for an FFA chapter in Salt Lake City.

“It was Labor Day weekend that we actually took the students and drove to Salt Lake to present the dogs to their new families. We transferred the dog (Aziza) to an FFA student in Salt Lake City, Anna Smith, who finished training the dog.”

Danelle and Aziza have had an interesting year.

Recently, Umstead competed in the 2018 Paralympic Games where, as an alpine skier, she competed in the giant slalom and Super-G. She is a three-time bronze medalist in three Paralympic Games: Vancouver in 2010, Sochi in 2014, and PyeongChang in 2018.

The talented athlete, at 13, was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition where the retina progressively degenerates and eventually causes blindness. She also has Multiple Sclerosis.

Dancing with the Stars premiered in September and is broadcast on Mondays at 8 p.m. Umstead dances with Artem Chigvintsev. Aziza sits quietly behind the scenes, waiting patiently as her owner dances the night away.

 “Aziza is my comfort place. She gives me the confidence to get around everywhere I need to go so that I can be a part of the show. She is there supporting me during every little detail – watching me, ready to take care of me when I need her,” Umstead told People Magazine.

Danelle Umstead and Aziza in training for the Paralympics.
Danelle Umstead and Aziza in training for the Paralympics.
Photo from Team USA, Paralympics

Aziza came well-trained. “Our job is to give the dogs as many life experiences as possible and just expose them to as many real-life situations: travel, equipment, going to school, going to the restaurant, whatever kind of life experience a blind person may encounter in his or her daily travels,” said Hearn.

The local training duties in 2012 went to LHS first-year FFA student Sydney Darter, a recent West Hills College culinary grad.

“I trained her for four months, before she went to Utah,” said Darter.

“Aziza was honestly a very happy dog, and she was always excited to play with other dogs. At first, she was a little difficult, but eventually, she became easy to train,” remembered Darter.

The former LHS student said she actually spoke with Umstead.  “I actually was in contact with Danelle shortly after she got Aziza.  I’ve only talked to her a handful of times.”

Hearn told The Leader that Darter’s job was to train the dog basic behavior. “Her job was to teach simple lease behavior, potty training, and correct behavior. She did all the veterinary vaccinations on the puppy, and then it was transferred to the Salt Lake City group.”

Over the years hundreds of dogs have gone on to serve as part of “Guide Dogs for the Blind,” a San Rafael based organization, initially founded in 1942 to help veterans blinded in World War II. One of its current functions now is recruiting volunteers for puppy raising.

Hearn told The Leader recently that there are 150 FFA Members in 10 western states currently raising guide dog puppies. Lemoore High School was a pioneer and a nationally recognized program at the state and nationals FFA levels.

It takes from 10 to 12 weeks for training and training guide dogs is a continuous process, said Hearn. “We have two more dogs graduating this month as guides. We do a lot of starter dogs because my students have a lot of experience. They’ll have good foundation skills,” she said.

Hearn said that puppy raising, and then formal training, takes about two years total. Formal training is when they go back to school and then placed with a licensed guide dog trainer.

She also takes part in the program. “Personally, I’m on dog No. 53.”

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