Dogs welcome in the classroom

Published 9:17 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

As a former substitute teacher in special education classrooms, I have some idea of the challenges involved in educating autistic children.

A lot of the kids may have high-functioning intellects, but when just making eye contact is tricky, let along maintaining a conversation, the hurdles sometimes seem insurmountable.

But after visiting Rivers Bend Academy this week, which is a coeducational private day school in Suffolk for young sufferers of autism and similar conditions, it seems that stepping outside the square can help educators make progress.

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With other media representatives, I was invited to the school to see the kids interact with therapy dogs from Suffolk Humane Society.

Among the canine helpers were “Bella,” a pit bull-mix owned by Cat Kaisler; “Dallas,” another pit-mix, owned by Ray Cross; and “Ella,” a Bernese mountain dog owned by Ginger Owen, the Suffolk Humane volunteer who started the therapy program.

Therapy Dogs International certifies dogs after eight weekly training sessions, though the time it takes can vary.

The difference the dogs make is obvious to see. As soon as a therapy dog entered a classroom, the students visibly came out of their shells.

Each dog has its own personality. Some like belly rubs, some prefer scratches behind the ears. What they all seemed to have in common was the ability to make kids smile and communicate.

And the children didn’t only communicate with the dogs and their owners, but also with each other. I noticed some conversation between the students, which wasn’t occurring before the pooches made their entrances.

While everybody responds to different ways of learning, standardized schooling with textbooks and quizzes makes sense for the most part. But for a struggling group of students that is growing from one moment to the next, mixing it up will pay dividends for tomorrow’s society.

The dogs, of course, had no idea of the important job they were doing; they were just being dogs. But they deserve credit for going into the classroom and interacting with kids for whom interaction can be difficult.

Rivers Bend Academy and the Suffolk Humane volunteers, who also partner with other Suffolk organizations in a similar way, also deserve credit for making something out of the ordinary happen.

Dogs have served a host of noble purposes through the ages — herding and protecting sheep, carrying messages in war, helping the blind see — and it’s nice to see the repertoire expanding.