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Teacher's dogs are therapy for disabled students

Warmth and movement from dogs provide physical interaction students sometimes lack

Posted: Sunday, October 13, 2002

KENAI - The kids in Teresa Owens' class don't do a lot of running and jumping. But that doesn't mean they don't have their own brand of fun.

Owens teaches special education at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary. The five students assigned to her intensive-needs class have a range of disabilities, both physical and mental. Some come to class in wheelchairs and move only with the help of teachers and aides. Some stare toward the ceiling, displaying varying degrees of autism and often ignoring other people.

But they perk up around Nellie and Maggie, Owens' golden retrievers - and an increasingly visible part of the K-Beach community.

The dogs spend most of the day in Owens' classroom, socializing with her students.

"In this classroom, they are motivating, a comfort. They're sensory stimulation for kids that have more intensive physical needs," Owens said.

The warmth, softness and movement offer the students physical interaction they sometimes lack.

The dogs also can serve as a form of equipment. In addition to the specialized chairs, floor mats and bean bags that litter the classroom, the dogs can be used to help position students with mobility disabilities.

For example, Jonathan Johnson, left to his own devices, will crawl across the room on his belly. But under Owens' watchful eye, Johnson can stand up holding onto Maggie.

Sky Brooks doesn't stand, but Owens will often lay the boy beside cuddly Nellie to let him feel the dog's rhythmic heartbeat and breath.

The dogs also serve as motivation for the students. When the children are reluctant to try something new, time with the dogs is an excellent reward.

"The kids love them. With students with very, very limited movement, we get smiles and laughs when they're kissed by the dogs," Owens said. "It's amazing to see kids who didn't talk or relate to people talking to animals."

But even with all they do in the special-needs classroom, the dogs' services don't stop at Owens' door. In fact, Owens said, they are playing a larger role in the school all the time.

Remedial math and reading teachers often borrow the dogs as a reward for their students. Other teachers use the dogs to help calm their classes. One fifth-grade teacher, Owens said, likes to bring the dogs into her classroom after lunch when she reads aloud to her class.

The dogs are important to the reading program at the school. Students who need extra help or who are afraid to read aloud in front of their peers can use the dogs as practice.

The dogs "love the attention, the voice talking to them, being petted," Owens said. "And they're not going to laugh or make jokes or get bored."

And then there are the lessons about pets in general. Throughout the day, students from various parts of the school stop by Owens' room to walk and groom the dogs.

"It teaches appreciation for animals, how to care for them," Owens said.

Students learn safe ways to approach people with dogs, how to walk dogs on leashes, and how to brush and pet dogs properly.

And these programs are just the beginning, Owens said.

Owens - and Nellie and Maggie - joined the K-Beach staff this fall, but all three have been involved with special education most of their lives.

Owens began working with people with disabilities when she was in high school and has been teaching for 18 years. She was teaching adaptive physical education in Kotzebue when she got Nellie and Maggie, now 4 and 5, respectively.

When the dogs were puppies, she started bringing them to school for walking field trips and outdoor activities - and things grew from there.

Nellie and Maggie were bred as therapeutic dogs. Their breeding makes them especially calm, even for golden retrievers, Owens said.

They have been through the Pet Partners program sponsored by the Delta Society, which trained them as animal-assisted therapy dogs.

In Kotzebue, the dogs were part of an incentive program to improve attendance and punctuality. Kids who regularly showed up to school on time were allowed to spend time with the animals. And it worked, Owens said.

The dogs also worked with the counseling department, helping upset students open up.

One day, Owens recalled, a girl whose grandfather had died was crying and refused to talk to anyone. Owens offered Maggie to the counselor to help. Telling the crying child that the dog really needed to be brushed, the counselor turned away and pretended to work at her computer.

"She told (Maggie) all about her Tata (grandfather), and after about a half an hour, she stood up and said she was ready to go back to class," Owens said.



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