Abilities through Agility

Polaroid picture of kids with animals.

Therapy Dogs Help Kids Meet Their Goals

You’ve all seen them on TV and watched in wonder as the beautiful dogs at the Westminster dog show deftly maneuver over bars, through tunnels, and around barriers. Their handlers run alongside them, shouting orders, signaling cues, and encouraging the dogs. Looks like fun, right?

A unique program at ChildServe combines the fun and engaging activities of this type of dog agility program with rehabilitation and skill development for children with special health care needs. The program is getting national attention, from other organizations hoping to copy the program in other cities to national magazines helping to spread the word.

By Andrea Thomson Viner, excerpt from the January/February edition of The Bark Magazine (www.thebark.com)

Abilities Through Agility (ATA) is 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 everyday activities/interactions) and speech-therapy goals.

The program began over a picnic table at the dog park, a brainstorm shared by Anne Bates, a physical therapist at ChildServe, 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 a boy with autism 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 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 upright poles 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.

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 also promotes dexterity. 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. 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.

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. For her part, Shumate hopes to obtain corporate sponsorships to offset the cost of agility- and therapy-dog training classes for potential volunteers.

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 they develop with their canine therapists are part and parcel of their success.