For the past 14 years, my Bernese Mountain Dogs and I have been involved in animalassisted therapy activities through Marin Humane Society’s Special Human-Animal Relationships  (SHARE) program. Together, we’ve visited senior residential facilities, our local hospital’s critical care unit, reading programs, classrooms for children with special needs and those involved in humane education, programs for at-risk and troubled youth, and Marin Humane Society  (MHS) summer camps. My youngest Berner, Charlotte, has been part of the SHARE program for three years. She’s a gentle soul who makes an immediate connection with everyone, especially children, whom she loves.
In April 2012, Rachel Blackman— whose mother, Darlene Blackman, heads the MHS SHARE and Community Service programs—invited five SHARE teams (including Charlotte and me) to participate in a program she developed for her Girl Scout Gold Award project. Inspired by one of her cousins, who is autistic, and her participation in MHS summer camps, she named it Jumping for Joy .
Jumping for Joy focuses on children with autism and learning disabilities and their families. The six-week program, which is offered at no cost to the participants, provides the children with an opportunity to work with trained animal-assisted therapy (AAT) teams on a canine agility course. Before and after the agility-course work, children and dogs spend time together in the “therapy” part of the program, during which each child receives reassurance, nonjudgmental acceptance and unconditional love from the canine teams.
During the first week, the children and their families meet and spend time with the dogs and watch demonstrations of the equipment they will be using. The focus is on simple cues for each station. Weeks two through five are dedicated to helping the children learn to navigate the jumps, tire, tunnel, A-frame and table with the dogs. Each class involves a demonstration, practice on the course and learning a new skill, as well as time spent with the dogs. To assist the children, Rachel prepares laminated cue cards that show a dog on a particular piece of equipment and the single-word cue that should be used. The final session is attended by families and friends and includes demonstrations and practice. Then, each child takes a dog through the complete agility course and receives a special certificate and medal.
The children in the first session were all from the same school and were well known to each of the SHARE teams from our visits to their classroom. It was rewarding to watch the even deeper bond that developed between the children and the dogs throughout the six weeks of the program. The learning styles and attention capabilities of each child guided the manner and method of their instruction. As a result, all were successful; in the photos taken during the classes, their attention and focus on the dogs and equipment are obvious. Even more telling are the smiles and looks of relaxation and enjoyment on their faces. During our earlier classroom visits, one of the boys was usually reluctant to approach Charlotte. We returned to his class after he completed the program, and what a change! He wanted her to sit right next to him as we worked on his math and writing assignments.
The second session brought a mix of students from three different schools, which provided a few new challenges. Rachel was quick to identify each child’s needs and learning style and provided us with guidance on how best to work with them. A white board with a simple class agenda was helpful for one. For another, having a glove to absorb dog slobber made a huge difference. Each child worked with all of the dogs; however, the children were free to choose which dog they wanted to work with on any individual exercise.
When I reflect on the many AAT programs Charlotte and I have participated in, Jumping for Joy is one of my very favorites. It combines the best of everything: children with special needs, dogs who love and respond to children, and opportunities for the children to be successful in learning new and fun skills. And I absolutely love the fact that the program evolved from the dream of a 15-year-old animal lover. The joy on the children’s faces says it all.
If your local animal-assisted therapy organization would like to learn more about starting a Jumping for Joy program, please email Rachel through the Marin Humane Society; send requests to email@example.com .
Photographs by Kathie Meier