Therapy Dogs Working with Special Needs Kids in the Classroom
Most of our listeners and readers know all about Myles the Therapy Dog. He’s been in parades, traveled all over the United States, and logged miles of visits in outpatient and inpatient mental health organizations. He’s also worked at schools in special needs classrooms. We added his younger brother, Buddy, to the program as Myles got older. Buddy does most of the ball catching and delivering while Myles makes rounds to each patient or student so they can pet him and give him treats.
Myles is mostly retired now but will come out for the occasional visit to a school or an event. He spends a lot of time with us while we speak about the use of dogs with mental health patients, especially kids. A few weeks ago both dogs worked with some of the foster children at an organization in North Carolina. These are kids with severe trauma after horrendous abuse. The organizations that work with these children and their foster parents often have us come out with Myles and Buddy. We work with them to assess whether having a specially trained dog in their home would help with the child’s quality of life.
We are there to offer guidance and test not only the foster parents but also the children. Bringing a service animal into your home to be a permanent part of a child’s life is a big decision. We help facilitate if this is the right decision for a particular child and their foster family.
Some schools have classrooms that work specifically with disabled children (physical, emotional, developmental) and these are the places we visit with our dogs. The visits are only 45 minutes. We spend the entire time on the floor with the kids and the dogs. For the children in wheelchairs, our dogs have been trained how to approach and how to place their noses in strategic positions so they can be pet. There is a lot of uncurling of fingers with the help of the student aids so that a child can gently wrap their hands around a paw or a muzzle. There is usually a lot of excitement and our job is to keep things as calm and focused as possible.
Many students are afraid, mostly of the dogs mouth and all those teeth. We’ve trained our dogs to allow us to hold their noses down and close their mouths. This alleviates some of the fear the students may have about petting them. Today’s visit at a local elementary school was no different but at the end of the visit even the most terrified were clapping, hugging, kissing, and petting both Myles and Buddy.
We use a lot of distraction to help pull the kids out of their fear: counting how many spots the dogs have, if they think the white spots on their fur are softer than the dark spots, etc. This typically distracts a child enough to move them out of their fear around the dog and into focus on touching them or counting spots. Once they realize they are, in fact, petting the dog the fear seems to diminish if not dissipate entirely.
What we know is that for roughly 45 minutes, these children are entranced, excited (there is nothing that excites them more than to throw a ball, have it caught by one of the dogs in mid-air, and have it delivered right to their feet or lap), and relaxed. Areas of their brain have been stimulated in positive ways right along with that general feeling of well-being.
For me as one of the dog handlers, I think I receive more from these visits than the patients/children. Giving something as easy as an hour of your time to make someone else’s life happier for a moment is extremely rewarding. Working with some of the local schools where Myles is well known has allowed me to see these kids at different stages of their development.
For more information about animal assisted therapy, please visit here.