Abilities Through Agility

Program transcends the sport to improve kids' lives
By Andrea Thomson Viner, January 2012, Updated February 2015

Blond fur flying gracefully, Lizzie the Golden Retriever leaps through the tire jump, scurries through the first tunnel and times her bar jump perfectly. Then, rounding the corner, she scampers past the second tunnel.

“Lizzie, this way!” directs her handler, circling her arm toward the tunnel entrance. Lizzie watches, wags and then seems to make a decision: she dashes gleefully toward the trees. Everyone on the course laughs.

Normally, this behavior on an agility course would earn major faults, but here, it’s all part of the fun—and the therapy.

Lizzie is a participant in Abilities Through Agility, a unique program that combines kids, therapy dogs and an agility course to help the children achieve their physical, occupational (focused on improving motor functions and everday activities/interactions) and speech-therapy goals.


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The program began over a picnic table at the dog park, a brainstorm shared by Anne Bates, a physical therapist at ChildServe (childserve.org), the rehabilitative-services facility in Johnston, Iowa, where the program takes place, and Nicole Shumate, founder of Paws & Effect (paws-effect.org), a nonprofit that trains therapy and service dogs. Shumate, who had seen a television program that featured an autistic boy and his dog participating in agility trials, imagined starting a similar program. Bates agreed, but wondered, “Do we have to limit it to autism?”

In January 2007, they launched Abilities Through Agility (ATA) with just four children. Now, the program has grown to four sessions each week, serving kids with severe injuries as well as degenerative, developmental, chromosomal and other disorders.

With three children, three therapists, two to three dogs and their handlers, three rehab techs, and a few parents in attendance, the sessions are “exercises in controlled chaos,” according to Bates. “It’s structured, but that structure’s hidden underneath.” In this setting, agility obstacles mask sometimes mundane or frustrating therapy obstacles, and the dogs motivate the children to overcome them.


This session starts with setting up the jumps, which requires physical and occupational skills. Alex, a 14-year-old with purple- and blue-streaked hair, wheels the uprights down the sidewalk in her wheelchair. “You’ll have to use your muscles,” says her therapist.

“I left ’em at home, sorry!” calls Alex.

Alex, who has Ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T), a rare genetic neurodegenerative disease, doesn’t actually mind the difficult task of transporting and handing off the uprights. She’s motivated to set up so that she can direct a dog through the course. “Kids are more likely to do things for the dogs than probably anyone else,” says Alex’s father, Greg Champion.

“You don’t notice you are actually working as much,” adds Alex.

Part of the program consists of the participants simply keeping up with their four-legged therapists as they dash through the course. While some run alongside their dogs, Alex pushes herself down the sidewalk that cuts through the course. At one point, Finn, her Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier partner, scampers to the top of the dogwalk, then half-turns to check on Alex’s progress. Seeing her far behind, Finn freezes, and Alex shakes her head and laughs as she propels herself toward him.

When it’s Kylie’s turn to run with Finn, she must first unhook the leash from his collar—a difficult maneuver. Kylie, Finn’s handler and the therapist all lean toward his curly neck as Kylie releases the latch. Then, the normally quiet 10-year-old girl sends Finn through the tire triumphantly—“Jump, Finn!”—punctuating the command with a thrust of her arm.

The children’s physical cues, whether pointing or arm motions, help them progress toward, and sometimes showcase the achievement of, their occupational therapy goals, as does rewarding the dogs; working a treat from palm to fingertips increases dexterity. Petting the dogs, one of the simple joys of human/canine interaction, also promotes dexterousness.

The kids clearly demonstrate their speech therapy work through the commands that ring out in conjunction with the physical cues—“Jump! Tunnel! Up! This way!”—. “They have to speak loudly and with authority for the dogs to respond,” says Champion.

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.


Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 68: Jan/Feb 2012

Photo by Dinko Ibukic

Andrea Thomson Viner lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with her husband, Tom, and two Boxers, Gertie and Duke. She writes about life with dogs at atowadogblog.com.