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Integrating Pet Therapy Into Daily School Life


The facility/service dog at ECLC, Patrina, is trained to do specific tasks that are helpful to a child with disabilities. Her training allows her to be an integral part of a student’s prescribed therapy plans, such as working on postural control and developing strength and balance. She is a familiar and very loved presence. Using facility/service dogs as part of physical therapy sessions serves many purposes.

Often, when disabilities are a factor, the challenges of moving one’s body are very difficult for students. Having a facility/service dog involved increases the level of interest and raises levels of arousal making movement less of a chore. The facility/service dog engages the student unconditionally and without words, creating within the therapy sessions a partnership that strengthens the student’s determination to persevere in spite of physical limitation or resistance.

For example, one of ECLC’s students, Shellsea, worked on her hand-grip strength as well as her range of motion in her shoulders by holding onto a tug toy as the facility/ service dog, Patrina, pulled her on a scooter. This activity worked on her postural control of her trunk (meaning her core stability and strength) as well as on her righting responses and balance. As Patrina moved Shellsea in different directions, she needed to make adjustments to her body in order to successfully stay on the scooter without falling. These skills are so important for the students. Having strength and balance to be able to negotiate the school environment as well as the outside world helps them.

Two classes participate in the therapeutic riding program at a riding stable with a staff experienced in working with children with disabilities. Children have moved incrementally from standing next to horses to mounting them, to slowly indicating that they are ready to have the horse move along. Sitting astride the horse, the child takes on a demeanor of self-assurance and control. The children are invited to groom and feed the animals. Children who may be sensory sensitive may be the first to stroke a horse or brush its coat, other children with balance issues may accomplish sitting on a saddle, holding the reins carefully and confidently. New skills and new behaviors don’t always come easily, but in certain settings amazing things have been observed to happen.

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