Assistance dogs support student learning
Dogs are learning's best friend.
Research showing that children's heart rates slow and their anxiety falls in the presence of a calm, friendly dog is behind an initiative to place Pacific Assistance Dogs in Tri-City public schools and private learning centres.
Children with reading and learning difficulties are making gains when they read with PADs dogs, teachers say, and as many as 10 dogs are now in School District 43 schools; a dog has been placed in the the Stepping 4words Learning Centre in Port Moody, as well.
Dana Ricci, whose centre uses the Orton-Gillingham methodology to help children with learning difficulties, says the introduction of the pooch Lark to the centre has changed the atmosphere, making it more welcoming to children.
"The dog just comes in and just gives a different feel to the room," said Ricci, whose partner Coral Gallagher was trained by PADs to handle the dog and is its guardian. "It calms them, she reads with them. She's part of the lesson."
For Ricci and Gallagher, both dog lovers, combining their passion for learning and animals was a natural fit and they inquired about getting a PADs dog after witnessing the work of one at a local school.
After a lengthy application process, Gallagher was accepted as a PADs client, paid a fee of $450 for training and was provided with Lark, a golden lab, as her working dog. From the very first day, Ricci said, Lark made a difference for students, including older children and adults who are getting learning assistance at the school, too.
"Most service dogs have a badge on them that says, 'Don't pet me.' Her job is to be petted," Ricci said.
According to PADs executive director Laura Watamanuk, the introduction of PADs dogs in schools is a relatively new initiative for the non-profit society, which got its start by placing dogs with people who have disabilities. SD43 is the first district to put dogs in schools, Watamanuk said, and organizations such as Canuck Place and BC Children's Hospital have also started using these Canine Assisted Intervention Dogs because of their ability to promote improvements to physical, social, emotional or cognitive functioning.
The district's pioneering efforts began about three years ago with the introduction of two dogs in classrooms. Children were paired with a dog and encouraged to read to it for about 30 minutes. Marna Macmillan, the district's social responsibility coordinator, and responsible for the AARF (Animal Ambassadors for Reading Fun) program, said the program was more than an intuitive effort to help struggling learners.
Research has found that children's heart rate slows and blood pressure drops in the presence of a calm, friendly dog, an important consideration when learning to read because anxiety is a stumbling block for many children. Macmillan said the dogs are well-trained and are naturally nonjudgemental; if a child asks what book they should read, the dog will indicate a choice by putting a paw on top of one of them, and when the children begin to read, the PADs dog is a most supportive listener.
"The dogs just listen, they don't correct errors, they are just there," said Macmillan.
There are now 10 PADs dogs operating in SD43 schools. For more information about the AARF program, click here. For more information about Stepping 4words Learning Centre, call 604-837-2459.
This Sunday, Sept. 30 Pacific Assistance Dog Society is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a presentation, graduation ceremony and reception from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Michael J. Fox Theatre at Burnaby South secondary school. PADS is a non-profit society run completely on donations. Info: www.pads.ca.