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The dog is a godsend for autistic kids.
By LETITIA STEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 25, 2007
[Carrie Pratt | Times]
TAMPA - For a week, Grayson DiTarando's mother pressed him over dinner - what had he learned about the Pilgrims at school? The 6-year-old with a mild form of autism just stared at his plate.
Then Hope walked into his classroom.
Her hair is the color of corn silk. She has gentle brown eyes and the calmest demeanor.
Hope is the first dog with a full-time job in a Hillsborough public school classroom. Carrollwood Elementary School believes a therapy dog can help some students in ways that teachers and textbooks can't.
Students like Grayson, who struggles socially but couldn't wait to meet the golden retriever. From their first meeting, Grayson looked Hope straight in the eye, a critical connection.
"The Pilgrims met the Indians because they sailed in a boat," he told Hope, his blond head bending over hers. "They built small cabins, because it was too snowy outside."
From the back of the room, his mother marveled as Grayson chattered on and showed off his Cheerios book, counting from one to 10 forward, backward and even in Spanish.
"There's so much research that supports the use of animal therapy," Liisa DiTarando said, praising Carrollwood's out-of-the-box thinking. "For schools, it's cutting edge and a risk to take."
* * *
The effort to bring Hope to a classroom began with Shannon Welsh-Cole, a second-year special education resource teacher.
While student-teaching in St. Louis, she had worked with an instructor whose husband had a service dog that came to her classroom.
She saw what researchers are finding: Therapy dogs can help children struggling with motivation and self-esteem. They reduce anxiety while reading and can help autistic students with social skills.
Still, Carrollwood principal Susan Avery admits she was skeptical. "You want to do what?" she thought.
Then she reviewed the research Welsh-Cole had assembled. Projects receiving attention nationally include the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program, or R.E.A.D.
Working in schools, libraries and other educational settings, the program has seen significant academic gains when struggling readers repeatedly read with therapy dogs and their handlers.
"They all seem to get a real kick out of knowing more than the dog," said Kathy Klotz, executive director of Intermountain Therapy Animals in Salt Lake City, which launched the R.E.A.D. program. "It sounds goofy, but it works."
Avery decided that Hope could motivate students having trouble reading, as well as children with behavior problems and disabilities.
"Dogs are unconditional love," she said. "If you mess up, they are not going to tell you to start over."
* * *
Hope trained for her job in another Hillsborough classroom.
She spent two years in the Kids and Canines program, where middle schoolers with truancy issues helped to teach her basic commands. Hope can open doors, pull cabinets, pick up keys and phones.
She is the first dog that Kids and Canines has placed in a Hillsborough classroom. School officials were comfortable with the concept only because they knew how well the program trained her.
None of that made the good-byes easier.
Program director Jennifer Wise's voice broke into the microphone during a recent "passing of the leash" ceremony at the Dorothy Thomas Exceptional Center near Lutz.
"Can I say good-bye?" asked one eighth-grader, looking desolate as she leaned in for a final pet.
But she understood. Her bond with Hope had to transfer to students at Carrollwood Elementary. The faculty has promised to send pictures.
* * *
On her first day at Carrollwood Elementary, Hope was a star. Walking around campus, she quickly became a magnet for doe-eyed smiles. Teachers joked that she must be a robot, she was so well behaved.
Welsh-Cole already sees a problem that the school will have.
"There's only one dog, and there's only one of me," she said.
At the top of the student list is Johanna, a 6-year-old with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism. She functions at a high level intellectually, but has trouble with social interactions.
Animals are different. Around Hope, Johanna doesn't flap her hands. She holds eye contact with the golden retriever longer than she will with people.
In one of their first lessons, Johanna taught Hope about oral hygiene. A dentist found that Johanna had 14 cavities during a recent visit, because she doesn't like the feeling of brushing her teeth.
The teacher showed Johanna how to squeeze chicken-flavored toothpaste from a tube decorated with a paw. She helped Johanna hold an oversized toothbrush to Hope's mouth.
"I brushed a big tooth," Johanna exclaimed.
"Look, we go back-forth, back-forth, back-forth," Welsh-Cole said, prodding Johanna. "Tell Hope what she needs to do to get her teeth clean every day."
When they were done, Welsh-Cole produced a Hello Kitty toothbrush and strawberry toothpaste for Johanna, who cleaned her own teeth just like she had Hope's.
The session ended with a few minutes of reading, an opportunity that Welsh-Cole plans to give students throughout the school. Hope sat on the mat while Johanna read out loud, the teacher close by to help as needed.
Welsh-Cole envisions building a library of books about dogs for students at all levels.
Hope will have the chance to live up to her name.
"Everyone's begging to come and read with Hope," she said. "And if a kid wants to read, that's just a huge turning point."
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.
Carrollwood Elementary is looking for sponsors to help pay some of Hope's expenses. For more information, contact the school at (813) 975-7640.
[Last modified November 24, 2007, 21:45:26]