Elementary Students Train Service Dogs

October 2009

Elementary Students Train Service Dogs

At an elementary school in Anchorage, the natural talent of dogs is being used as a tool to help elementary school children establish a dynamic beginning to their academic life by increasing focus, listening skills, eye contact and healthy touch.

Alaska Assistance Dogs (AAD) pairs children and service dogs-in-training, allowing the kids to train the dogs to perform 80 commands. Children experience healthy loving, touching and hugging, self-discover their own talents and learn to bond. They make major improvements in developing empathy, patience and self-esteem. Lead by a licensed psychological counselor, and co-taught by certified service dog trainers, AAD has created a win-win project that sets the foundation for student success while producing service dogs for Alaskans with disabilities.

In October of 2009, Alaska Assistance Dogs was awarded a $15,000 grant from Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority for the purchase of two temperament screened Golden Retriever puppies, food and veterinary care for the puppies and certification for an additional service dog trainer. The two puppies are a wonderful addition to the non profit’s canine staff, including professionally trained adult dogs Leo, the athletic Standard Poodle, and Tigger, the loving Golden Retriever. This grant allows the children to participate in the full process of service dog training from puppyhood to placement.

AAD works primarily with two pre-school classes. Additional students from K-5th grade also work with the dogs and often serve as role models for the younger children.

The students’ duties are to use positive reinforcement techniques to impart the 80 commands service dogs need, including turning lights on and off, picking up dropped items and pulling wheelchairs. Children learn Alpha body language, eye contact, and use of a strong voice for commands. Through this process, they learn essential skills for a successful academic life.

Young children can sometimes have difficulties in school related to social interaction, focus, listening skills and communication. This inhibits learning and limits academic success. If they suffer from low self-esteem and self-confidence, learning suffers for each child in the class. Improved self-esteem, focus, and communication skills are some of the goals of this training.

The benefits of animal-related therapy are well known anecdotally, however it is taking the efforts of such institutions as the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, Department of Clinical Studies, at the University of Pennsylvania to provide quantitative evidence. Studies focus on how dog contact in hospitals benefits healing, how nursing home interactions reduce depression, how psychotherapy benefits from proscriptive canine interaction, and how soldiers with PTSD or injuries benefit from training service dogs.

As the puppies grow and learn from the students, it brings delight not only to the children and the service dogs-in-training, but to the trainers, teachers and therapist as well. It reminds us of our sincere appreciation to Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority for their generous support. Thank you!

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