Therapy Dog Program Helps Kids
Elvira the poodle works in the special needs classroom at Desert Hot Springs High School in Palm Springs, CA. She acts as a therapist, confidant, and best friend. The poodle visits schools all over the area as part of the Animal Samaritans Animal Assisted Therapy volunteer program.
The dogs in this program help kids who are autistic, have cerebral palsy, or have rigidity in their limbs. They provide a measure of self-assurance and confidence to these disabled kids in the classroom environment.
Therapy dog duties are flexible, depending on the environment in which they are working. It particularly varies in the school programs, where the children’s ages and skill levels can be dramatically different. In some classrooms, kids with more advanced skills can take Elvira for a walk. Others, who are more significantly disabled, simply extend a hand to pet the poodle.
The program started in 1982, when Barbara Flanagan, then president of Animal Samaritans, read an article about the Delta Society at the University of Washington. The nonprofit Delta Society is dedicated to improving human health through service and therapy animals.
Through their Pet Partners program, almost 100 volunteers visit schools and other facilities with their dogs. The dogs are rigorously trained and tested. That way, if the dog’s fur gets pulled, if they get poked in the eye, or even if they withstand a finger in their mouth, there is no reaction. They have to be tolerant and obedient. They have to be more than just loving.
Before they can take a temperament test for the program, therapy dogs first have to first pass the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test. During the temperament test, trainers try to provoke a response from each dog by clumsy petting, making loud sounds, using fast hand movements or angry yelling. Passing the test requires a lot of work and training, even for the calm and composed poodle Elvira. The end result is a program that is as gratifying for the dogs as it is for the humans.