As Lizzie did during her unscheduled frolic break, the dogs sometimes add to the speech-therapy load by misbehaving (“No! Come back, Lizzie!”). “I don’t care,” says Bates of the canine naughtiness. “I’m not looking for the most obedient dogs. From a speech perspective, [the kids] have to learn to re-ask—the appropriate way to get [the dogs’] attention.”
Therapists capitalize on surprises and routine tasks alike to incorporate the agility course into the kids’ overall therapy goals. Even the dogs’ well-deserved water break provides the children with opportunities to develop their skills and abilities; they have to manipulate water-bottle caps and squeeze hard to fill the bowls. The children seem proud to be able to offer their special partners a cool drink.
In addition to ATA, ChildServe offers other animal-assisted therapy, such as animal interactions during individual therapy sessions, as well as animal-assisted activity, like visits from a dog to a patient’s room. These interactions occur sporadically, though, while ATA pairs meet weekly to develop the bond between child and dog. The first 10 weeks a pair works together can be hectic, as each learns the other’s cues and capabilities. “But eventually … it clicks, and the dog starts listening to the child versus the handler,” says Bates.
Alex and her regular dog, Blue, have clearly clicked; when Bates tells her that Blue will be back in January, Alex breaks out in a huge smile. Blue, who sustained a back injury, was temporarily absent from the program and Alex had been sharing both Lizzie and Finn with the kids in her session.
“Kids know their dogs,” says Bates.
Kylie’s reaction to Finn’s no-show at the beginning of the session illuminates the strength of the bond they’ve developed over two years. “Where’s Finn?” she worries. Told he’ll probably come soon, she asks over and over, “But when?” When Finn arrives, Kylie brightens immediately, calling his name as she runs to him. She sinks her hands into his wavy fur and lovingly strokes his back.
“It’s a special bond,” says Champion of the connection between the child handlers and “their” dogs. His older daughter, Paige, who also has A-T and participated in ATA, connected so deeply with her dog Jessie that the yellow Labrador appears with her in her senior pictures.
These bonds allow the dogs to adapt and listen to handlers who aren’t their caregivers. “Dogs can adapt to just about anything in life. The bond will grow simply because the dog is having fun with the handler,” explains Pia Silvani, a well-known certified dog trainer.
Thanks to the bonds forged by teamwork and the clever strategies employed in these group agility sessions, the children reach their goals.At that point, they graduate from the program, leaving space for new members. However, kids can’t graduate fast enough to meet demand. The program currently serves 12 children, with 10 more on the waiting list. “It could be a few years,” says Bates. “We’d love to have a group every night, but we have to have the dogs.”
Bates leans on Shumate at Paws & Effect to recruit both volunteers and dogs. On her part, Shumate hopes to obtain corporate sponsorships to offset the cost of agility- and therapy-dog training classes for potential volunteers. She would also like to expand the program to another arena: the Special Olympics. “[Her idea] is that the kids will use agility through their lives, and have it be their sport,” says Bates.
Regardless of the venue, when these dogs and children appear on the agility course, the focus won’t be on times, faults or medals. As the teams conquer the course, they’re really overcoming the real-life challenges the children face. Improvement in the young handlers’ abilities and the loving bonds that develop between them and their canine therapists are part and parcel of their success.