Laure Sieber sat on a carpet, her black and white dog stretched out beside her. A little girl named Emma put her face up next to his wet nose and crooned.
Charlie's tail wagged as he licked the preschooler's nose. Emma laughed. Therapy dogs and children get along naturally that way.
Charlie, half Newfoundland and half standard poodle (or a "newfiedoodle," as Laure calls him) has worked as a therapy dog for six years. Therapy dogs for kids can alleviate stress and trauma, promote relaxation, reduce aggression, relieve agitation and anxiety, and encourage movement, socialization and verbalization, according to Therapy Dogs International. This volunteer organization is dedicated to regulating, testing, and registering therapy dogs for kids and adults along with their volunteer handlers.
Charlie and Laure
Each week, the blue-eyed Charlie accompanies Laure on visits to children like Emma at the Elizabeth Lee Black School of the Barber National Institute in Erie, PA. The school serves more than 220 children ages 3 to 21 with autism, intellectual disabilities, multiple handicaps, and behavioral health challenges from 22 school districts in northwestern Pennsylvania and Chautauqua County, NY. The Barber National Institute also offers a preschool for students like Emma, who are typically developing children but considered "at risk" due to various socioeconomic factors.
After visiting with Emma and her class, Charlie and Laure move on to a classroom where teachers work with children suffering from extensive handicaps and intellectual disabilities.
One of the youngsters lets out an ear-splitting shriek in excitement when Charlie enters the room, but the dog doesn't flinch at the noise. Laure leads Charlie over to another nearby child–blind with little control over his hand movements. But Laure gently pulls his hand to Charlie's head, and the child grins widely at the feel of the fur. In his excitement, though, the boy grips Charlie's hair and tugs. Albeit painful and startling to other dogs, Charlie just sits patiently and looks at Laure, who gently removes the boy's hand and holds it while she maneuvers it in a more controlled motion over the newfiedoodle's soft fur.
"I thought he'd be a good therapy dog because he loves little kids," she says. "I'd take him for walks around the neighborhood and whenever he saw kids he'd always want to go see them. He's always patient with them, no matter what."
The (Good) Nature of a Therapy Dog
Charlie was trained as a service dog at Therapy Dogs United, an Erie-based nonprofit that certifies dogs and their owners to provide emotionally and physically challenged individuals with affection, comfort, and lessons that instill valuable life skills.
And service dogs are different than therapy dogs. Service dogs are trained to assist a single person with a specific disability. Therapy dogs, explains the Psychiatric Service Dog Partners, are trained to interact and assist many people–some who suffer from a wide range of emotional or physical disabilities and others who simply need encouraging company.
Along with the Elizabeth Lee Black School, dogs certified with Therapy Dogs United work with children in Erie-area libraries, where they help kids who are slowly learning to read by listening to them without judgment or impatience. Therapy dogs for kids also volunteer at the Erie County Courthouse, providing a source of support for children facing dependency hearings. These awesome pups provide a calming presence that helps alleviate the trauma and stress associated with appearing in court, Erie County Judge John J. Trucilla told the Erie Times-News for a story about the program.
Janice Wolfe's New Jersey-based organization, called Merlin's KIDS (no affiliation to Therapy Dogs International), trains service dogs who do several types of therapeutic work. Janice, who has a therapy dog of her own–a Rhodesian ridgeback named Wyatt–has seen firsthand the difference therapy dogs for kids can make to students with special needs. She remembers one occasion when a low-functioning teenager suddenly rose from his chair and came to her and said "walk Wyatt."
"He started walking Wyatt around the room and you could have heard a pin drop," Janice says. "It turns out the aides had never heard him speak before. They'd never heard him talk. But his interest and connection to Wyatt was so powerful that it motivated him. It shows that these interactions matter, that animals can do amazing things."
A Mutual Benefit
At the Elizabeth Lee Black School, Laure allows each child to pet and talk to Charlie before leading him through a series of tricks. He shakes hands with the kids, "prays," and turns in circles–his stubby tail wagging as he waits for the treat Laure offers after he follows through with her commands.
Along with giving kids the opportunity to bond with Charlie, instructors use the time with the therapy dogs and children to teach basic life skills such as taking turns, following directions, waiting patiently, making eye contact, and being kind to animals.
Many of the classrooms Charlie visits even keep a water bowl just for him, observes Maria Hopkins, a para-educator trainer at the Barber National Institute.
"Charlie helps the kids focus. He acts as a behavioral aid," she says. "And he just makes everyone happy; you see the kids light up when he's here."
Charlie, who has been coming to the Barber National Institute for more than five years, loves the time they spend there. Laure knows this because when school is on break, Charlie will stand by the drawer where she keeps his Therapy Dog vest, and just look at her.
"It's like he's saying, 'aren't we going to go meet the kids?'" Laure says. "He just knows he wants to be there."
James Sterner, 17, is a student at the Elizabeth Lee Black School. His job is to help guide Laure and Charlie from class to class to visit with each group of students. James and Charlie developed a special connection themselves when James helped Charlie get over a fear of tile floors. According to Laure, James came up with an idea to lay a blanket down for Charlie to walk on when the floor isn't carpeted.
Watching James work to find a solution for Charlie's issue was something she won't forget, says Maria, the para-educator trainer.
"Our job is to help children with [developmental] issues, and one of our own kids was able to find a way to help Charlie adapt to his issue," she says. "That's very powerful."
As for James, his reason for loving Charlie is simple: "Charlie is sensitive and kind and very smart."
"He's cute too," he adds, giving the dog's head a pat.
Charlie, with a last look up at James, wagged his tail and went to work in the next classroom.
Kara Murphy is a freelance writer in Erie, Pa.