Walking through the halls of the school this morning, I saw Bradley and Don greeting Laure Seiber and her therapy dog Charlie (a Newfiedoodle). Laure and Charlie, members of Therapy Dogs United (TDU), were making their weekly visit to the school. I followed Laure and Charlie to the classroom and caught a glimpse of TDU in action.
Charlie and Laure are visiting a classroom of students with limited communication skills. The children indicate their desire to interact with Charlie by selecting a PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) card. After placing a picture of a dog on their PECS book, they proceed to sit beside and pet Charlie. Charlie is incorporated into the curriculum, not as a play diversion, but to assist in the educational process by facilitating communication.
Therapy dogs serve a unique purpose. The specials dogs allow a child to practice the skills he or she acquires in speech, as well as in physical and occupational therapy. “Because many children with autism tend to inhabit a private inner world, constructing a bridge to that world is essential,” said Dr. Austin Rynne, director of health and related services of the Anderson Center. Therapy dogs are one way to construct that bridge. Charlie knows how to interact with children without overreacting to them, and he is not alone.
Founded in 1976, Therapy Dogs International ensures that dogs are registered and insured as volunteer therapy dogs. They must be a minimum of one year old and have annual health records completed and signed by a veterinarian. They must pass a Therapy Dog International (TDI) test as well as a temperament test. The dog then becomes a certified TDI. The primary objective of the handler is to share the companionship of their dog with those whom they encounter in therapy visits.
Studies have shown that interaction with dogs can promote relaxation, relieve agitation and anxiety, encourage appropriate behavior and reduce aggression. Individuals with autism are able to connect with animals in very deep and meaningful ways. Animals can teach a child unconditional love, responsibility, compassion and provide companionship that can potentially change the course of their lives.
Laure and Charlie, as well as Phyllis and her dog, Shilo, have committed to helping our children on a weekly basis for the past five years. New to the team this year are Mary Beth and her dog, Jessie. They provide a unique opportunity for our children to expand their skills beyond the traditional classroom environment.
As Bradley and Don accompanied Laure and Charlie to the next classroom I thought to myself, Charlie is unaware and unconcerned about the children’s limitations or challenges. He is just a friendly, well mannered, obedient therapy dog who loves people and accepts them the way they are.
Additional Information: How Therapy Dogs Can Help Children with Autism