Courtesy of Providence Day School
Ashley Liberto and her golden retriever Bentley have been inseparable since she got him as a puppy eight years ago.
"He follows me around the house. He's so full of life and energy, and he just loves everybody," Liberto tells PEOPLE about the pet.
So when he started limping a few months ago, she panicked.
"The vet thought it was arthritis, and then his elbow swelled, and they did an x-ray and found a soft tissue sarcoma," the devoted dog owner says.
A subsequent MRI and biopsy confirmed the devastating diagnosis — cancer in Bentley's right elbow. The golden retriever would need to have the affected limb amputated.
"I don't have kids; he's my child. It was terrible. It was emotionally exhausting. I was crying every night," the middle school math teacher says.
Luckily, the surgery was successful, with the operating veterinarian leaving the procedure confident that all the cancer was removed.
The golden retriever's doctors told Liberto that Bentley would take about two weeks to recover.
"As soon as he came out to see me, he hobbled along, and he just adapted. We have a tennis court, and the second day he was home, he pulled me to the tennis court to get balls to play. He just has this will to live," Liberto says of her pet's recovery.
After Bentley was on the move again, Liberto started joining support groups for "tripod dogs" and researching prosthetics. When she saw the cost of custom canine prosthetics, the teacher at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina, reached out to some of her former students for help with a more cost-effective option.
Providence Day School has a class focused on computer-aided design and 3-D printing. The teacher, Todd Johnson, says it's an introductory level class that teaches students to make basic shapes — like keychains — using the technology. But when Liberto suggested attempting to make a prosthetic leg for her golden retriever, the students were eager to help and try something new.
"I thought it was a great opportunity for the students to see a real-world application for what they're learning at school. I knew once the students wrapped their heads around it, they would come up with designs that are viable solutions," Johnson says.
The class broke up into small groups to come up with designs for Bentley. Team leader Brandon Hollis and his group came up with the winning design. Hollis, who had taken 6th-grade math with Liberto, was motivated to help his former teacher and her beloved dog.
"There was a very real connection just seeing Bentley when he came into class, and knowing I was going to be able to help him was something special," Hollis says.
Hollis' group spent weeks creating a harness and a prosthetic leg for Bentley.
"It fit way better than I could have hoped for. It still needs some slight tweaks, and then it should fit perfectly," Hollis tells PEOPLE of the near-final product.
Courtesy of Providence Day School
The students hope to have a finished custom, comfortable prosthetic for Bentley in the next few weeks. Even though the class has ended, the teenage designers have continued the project on their own time.
"It's pretty cool. A lot of times, we do these kinds of projects and don't get to think of it as doing much or helping someone, and then Bentley showed up, and it was like, we're doing this to help someone and help such a sweet dog," Reed Nobili, another student working on the prosthetic, says.
Liberto is thrilled.
"Oh my gosh, seeing what they came up with was so moving. I cried. Our kids are so smart, and the fact they can take what they're learning in the classroom and see it in real-life scenarios — it's really moving.