Kathy Santo trains dogs for home and competition at her obedience school in New Jersey. She's the author of Kathy Santo's Dog Sense and a regular guest on The Martha Stewart Show.
Text Copyright the American Kennel Club, Inc., 2008. No portion of this article may be reproduced without permission of the copyright holder. Reprinted with permission from AKC Family Dog, September/October, 2008.
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During more than 20 years of training owners and their dogs, I've heard a number of reasons for going to training class. One of my favorites-and one I'm hearing a lot more these days-is "I want my pet to be a therapy dog." While I don't run any therapy-dog-specific classes, over the past few years I've created a program that pairs trained dogs with autistic children. There are many components to this program, and it requires more than a few canine "volunteers." Fortunately, my students are always eager to help.
The dogs chosen for our program come primarily out of my Advanced 111-level classes. (Many schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and oilier institutions will require a more formal certification, such as one given by the Delta Society or Therapy Dogs International.) The dogs are required to be proficient at the off-leash come command, walking on leash, heel, stay, sit, down (with head on the ground), and go to your place, as well as knowing the hand signals for all these commands. (Some nonverbal children may want to work with the dogs.) The dogs are also taught a watch me command, to be sure they will completely focus on the handler's face when necessary. I'm certified to administer the AKC Canine Good Citizen® test, so all the program dogs must pass this test also. In addition, the dogs must be well socialized and have a "bombproof' disposition. Ar dog who is nervous, easily startled, or physically sensitive would have a difficult time interacting and performing the tasks required. Here's a summary of a typicalsession with the autistic children.
Arriving at the school
(Training required: heeling with attention, sit-stay, "place.") All the dogs are heeled into the school to minimize disruption. When we arrive at the conference room (our home base), the dogs sit and stay as their handlers set up their "place." When the children start to arrive, the dogs are told to go to their place and their owners sit on the floor next to them.
Here come the children
(Training required: down, sit, and stay.) When the children come into the room, we like the dogs to be calm and quiet to avoid startling or overwhelming anyone. To accomplish this, we require each dog to remain in position-his "place"until a teacher and student approach the handler and explain their goals for the session.
The session begins
(Training required: all basic verbal and hand-signal commands; basic agility commands when necessary.) One of the biggest benefits of the program is that the children have the opportunity to practice skills they're learning with the dogs. For example, a child who is working on his verbal skills will happily practice by giving the dogs basic commands and seeing the results of his "training." One boy dissolves into giggles every time he throws the ball and gives the fetch command to a particularly ball-intense Border Collie.
Being allowed to walk the dogs is one of the children's favorite ways to interact with them. It's fascinating to watch an autistic child lead and direct a dog as they walk in and around the school. There's one child who's even able to walk two dogs at once. Naturally, the dogs must have mastered the heel command and realize they can never pull an the leash.
Sometimes a child will have an emotional moment, and that's when all the dogs are told head down. This command is similar to the regular down command, except I want the dogs lying quietly with their heads on the floor. This gives the teacher a chance to calm the child without the added distraction of dogs moving around.
Some dogs are specialists
Two dogs in our program are retrieving maniacs! They've been taught extra commands-fetch, bring, and drop it. A few of the children love to throw the balls for the dogs, and their teacher will incorporate a lesson into the game. ("Say Fetch' loudly and clearly.")
Another dog is a couch potato and as physically tough as a Tonka truck! Thanks to his sedate nature he's popular with the children who are overcoming a fear of dogs, as well as those who may, in their excitement, pet the dog a bit too enthusiastically.
One of my small-dog team members loves his travel bag. For the children who are initially fearful, we put this little guy in his bag on a table. The children can approach him while they're standing up, rather than sitting on the floor. They progress from being able to look at him in the bag, to looking at him while he has his head our of the hag, to him doing a down-stay in the open bag, and eventually to their approaching him. One of our biggest successes with this method is the child who was extremely fearful in the beginning, but has now progressed to walking the dog around the school.
Perhaps the funniest trick performed by one of the dogs, a Shih Tzu, is a jump. This gem of a behavior was learned while he was trying to snag a piece
of food from the kitchen counter, and it
quickly reinforced by his family saying "Jump!" before they gave him a treat. Now, when he hears the jump command, this little dog does a vertical leap that would make Sharon jealous. The best part is watching the children give him the command-some of them join in with the jumping!
There are some dogs (though not my own) who seem to enjoy being dressed up. We happen to have one on staff, and many of the children who were originally wary of dogs have become completely comfortable with her. I suppose it's hard to resist a dog in a pink, lacy dress.
Tools of the treatment
When we're at the school, all the dogs are on a buckle collar and a Halti or Gentle Leader head harness. (See photo at right.) Even though the dogs are perfectly behaved, being close to a dog's face frightens some children. By using the Haiti, the child can pet a dog's back while the handier stabilizes his head and keeps it facing away. In addition, we'll hold a jar of baby food and let the dog lick it as a reward for keeping his head away from the child while he's being touched. It's no wonder the dogs love going to the school!
Some of the children like to walk the dogs, so we attach two leashes to the collar, one for the child and one for the handler. This allows the handler to maintain control of the dog while managing the distance between the dog and the child.
Not just for college kids anymore, Cheez Whiz has become one of the staples in my training bag! Many of the children want to give the dog a treat, but most of them don't want to be near the dog's mouth. The solution: Let the child hold a can of Cheez Whiz for the dog to lick!
The tunnel is the favorite piece of equipment for both the kids and the dogs. When the kids put the dog in one end of the tunnel and he comes racing our the other side, the belly laughs are contagious. Who's having more fun-the dogs, the kids, or us?
At the end of the hour, the children are happy and the dogs are exhausted! It requires a lot for them to remain calm and obedient in an environment that can be a bit chaotic. Although I visit a number of schools, I never visit more than one a day. It's important for the dogs-and their handlers-to be well rested before each session.
I hope programs such as ours will become popular all across the country. If you're a student at a dog-training school, talk to your instructor about starting a program in your community. Become a volunteer, and see how much fin you and your dog will have. I tell the students who participate in our program, "Whatever you give in that hour, those children will give you back a hundred times more." And every week they prove me right.