When I initially got the phone call, I have to admit that I was a bit nervous about the request, but, my school psychologist encouraged me to get more information feeling that it would be a wonderful opportunity for our students. While I was familiar with the use of Therapy Dogs for young readers, in my mind, I wanted to make sure this program was the "right fit" for this particular group of special needs students. I needed to be able to approach my administrator with the request to run the program, so I had to be sure what it would entail. So, I scheduled a meeting with the Therapy Dog handler/Moses's owner and asked him to bring along his dog. Meet Moses, the Mastiff!
During this initial meeting, I asked the handler about his credentials and Moses's training. He gave me a form describing all of this: the Therapy Dog training they received, as well as, all of the awards Moses has won. Moses and his handler were affiliated with Therapy Dogs International. I also asked what the first few sessions would look like. He described his ideas and later emailed me them in detail. Finally, I asked, "Would there be any charge for this program?" Surprisingly, the answer was "NO." The handler also had a number of questions for me - to make sure it was the right fit for him and his dog. His questions were about the school, the classrooms he would be visiting, and what to expect from the students he would be working with. After the meeting, I approached all of the teachers involved and reviewed the information I learned about the programming. They all gave me the go-ahead. Then I went to sell the idea to my administrator. While my administrator welcomed the concept of the program, I have to admit that there were some initial nerves about the sheer size of Moses! Regardless, I got the blessing to proceed.
We decided that students needed parental permission to participate. I created a parental permission slip to send home with students. The permission slip outlined much of the information I found out in the initial meeting, as well as, what the students would be learning and doing over the course of the program. We scheduled Moses to spend about 20-30 minutes, every other week, in the select classrooms. The school psychologist and I both attended each session to provide support.
We decided that we wanted to instruct students on: approaching a dog safely, how to look at a dog safely, petting a dog safely, walking a dog, giving a dog a treat, grooming a dog, how to take care of a dog, and giving a dog commands. We also wanted to give students time to pet Moses, sit and talk to Moses, read to Moses, and share student work with Moses, etc.
After the initial sessions where the kiddos met Moses and learned the basics, Moses's handler/dad and his wife created interesting ways to "encourage" hesitant students to approach Moses. Outfits were sewn for Moses with side pockets. In the side pockets, they would put fun little things for the kids - stickers, foam shapes, treats, etc. Students would approach Moses and were able to take a gift from his pockets. Sometimes, Moses would even wear a hat! Here are some of Moses's outfits from over the years.
Celebrating Cinco de Mayo
Celebrating Moses's Birthday
The Easter Bunny!
For Moses' birthday celebration, the students made him birthday cards. Most students read their cards to him.
Students had the opportunity to read to Moses!
Then, after all of the the initial pet safety instruction, instruction on everyday life skills happened next. Moses's handler/dad and his wife came up with all of the creative lessons - sometimes based on issues that were happening within the classrooms. By using examples of Moses's care and his life events, we were able to teach the students various skills. Lessons included eating healthy, personal hygiene, safety in the community, and visiting the doctor. So, during the doctor lesson, students learned how Moses gets check-ups at his doctor (veterinarian). The students were taught that the vet listens to Moses's heart, checks his ears and teeth, feels his belly, listens to him breath and may even need to give him a few shots. All of these things are similar to what kiddos experience when they go to a doctor for a check-up. The handler showed the students Moses's first-aid kit and then, students were able to listen to Moses's heart with a stethoscope.
Here is Moses in his scrubs!
The outcomes were/are remarkable! During the first year of the program, the original target student employed escape techniques during the first session, during the second session the student remained in the general vicinity of Moses, and before we knew it, the student was smiling at Moses, petting Moses, reading to Moses, and sitting next to Moses. We were elated! I had hoped for this success and was prepared for it, but I had not intellectually thought through all the other positives that could possibly happen with the entire group of students. The success didn't stop with one student! This was an unique opportunity for all of our students to communicate with their peers and with a friendly furry friend. Communication, across the board, was improved. Peer interaction was increased and students were excited to see their friends visit (Moses and his Dad)! Students created works of art to show Moses, read Moses stories, and showed Moses pictures in books. They were gently, friendly, and caring. It was such an amazing first year! So much so, we continued the program and are currently in year three.
At the end of each year, we have a celebration. Moses dresses up in his graduation outfit and the students each get a little certificate from Moses. Then they shake Moses's hand. I have started a tradition in which I give students their own personal photo album of pictures I took of Moses with them over the course of the year. The kids love seeing themselves with Moses! We all enjoy a cake to celebrate!
The program certainly requires careful planning and inquiry to find the perfect handler and Therapy Dog for the students they would be working with. would highly recommend the use of a Therapy Dog in school to increase peer interactions, communication skills, life skills, and social skills with special needs students. Students are also practicing fine and gross motor skills, body and spacial awareness, and self-control skills. Certainly, these positives are only a few of the overall benefits of such a fantastic opportunity!
For more information about Therapy Dogs, please visit the website of Therapy Dogs International. Here you can find information about contacts in your region.