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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 12 November 2002 Issue

Teaching young dogs is new trick
By Stephanie Warsmith
Springfield High School class learns from training puppies

Students who've had discipline problems relish this assignment.

The newest students at Springfield High School go outside to use the restroom and bark when they want attention.

And in addition to learning, they are teaching.

The six Labrador retrievers -- five puppies and their father -- have been paired with students who have a history of outbursts and discipline problems.

While the seven students have been teaching the dogs obedience, the youths' behavior also has improved. Attendance is up, trips to the office are down, and assignments are getting done on time.

``These are kids who sometimes have a hard time controlling their own behavior, let alone that of a dog,'' said Renee Smith, whose students are training the 5-month-old puppies.

The program, called Pairing Animals With Exceptional Students, or P.A.W.E.S., is the first of its kind in the Akron area -- and one of only a handful in the country.

On a recent morning, students in the class worked quietly at their desks while the puppies dozed nearby in handmade wooden crates. Then Smith announced that it was training time, spurring the teen-agers into action.

The students formed a circle in the middle of the classroom, with the playful puppies seated on the floor beside them. The teens took turns leading their dogs into the center of the room and showing what they could do.

Using treats to entice the dogs, the students made them sit, lie down and come to them when called. During the presentations, they joked about whose dog was best.

``Remember: What did they know when they got here? Nothing,'' Smith told the students.

Playful romp outside

Then it was time for a bathroom break -- an event met with as much excitement as the training. Armed with plastic bags, the students bounded out the door, running to a nearby grassy area with the puppies in tow.

Outside, they were no longer students or teachers, but simply puppies and kids -- enjoying a playful romp. After a few minutes, the students ran the dogs back to the school, where they settled them in their crates and hit the books.

This has become the daily routine for the students and their faithful friends, except for Mondays, when the teens get a lesson on working with the dogs.

Chuck Reynolds, a dog trainer who owns a Cuyahoga Falls kennel, teaches the students a new trick each week that they then work on with the puppies every school day.

At night, staff members who have adopted the dogs take them home. They drop off the dogs in the morning, much as a parent delivers a child to day care.

Inspired by own dogs

Smith came up with the idea for the program when her two Labradors gave birth to the puppies and she saw how well her own adopted children -- who have disabilities -- responded to the dogs. She consulted with Springfield school psychologist Kristin Edinger, and they took the idea to the school board.

Even in the beginning, the concept excited the students. Amber Moore, one of the students in Smith's class, wrote to school board members urging them to support the program.

``With these dogs, I hope to find myself as a bigger and better person than I ever have been,'' the sophomore wrote. ``By that, I mean the dogs will increase my self-esteem and cheer me up.''

The school board ultimately signed off on the idea, which has cost the district nothing. Smith and Edinger have applied for a $400 grant from a regional special education group to pick up the cost of Reynolds' training.

Other uses elsewhere

Although dog training has been used for therapeutic purposes in prisons, hospitals and nursing homes, pairing canines with students with behavior problems is a relatively new approach.

However, national experts say the technique being used in Springfield is similar to the system applied in prisons, in which training a dog is used as a reward for good behavior.

``It's sort of like a dog biscuit for the kid,'' said Nancy Dapper, vice president of the Delta Society, a nonprofit organization based in Renton, Wash., that trains pet therapy volunteers. ``What you are trying to teach is self-control and that there are consequences for the decisions you make.''

The students taking part in Springfield's program give it high marks.

Ryan Milgrim, 15, said working with the dogs helps relieve stress. When he needs a timeout, he plays with one of the dogs.

``I look forward to school now,'' the sophomore said.

Lindsay Decker, another student, has given the puppy she works with a nickname: ``Problem Child.'' The 16-year-old freshman said working with the pooch can be frustrating.

``It makes me think what my mom had to put up with,'' she said. ``You've got to be patient.''

Impact on students

School officials have been impressed by the program's results.

A student who previously refused to do any work is now regularly completing his assignments. Another student who often skipped school hasn't missed a day -- and even called her teacher at home once to ask for a ride. No students have been sent to the principal's office because of discipline problems; before, there were as many as five office referrals a day.

``The transformation has been amazing to watch,'' Smith said.

The program has had another benefit: Because other students and staff members have been stopping in to see the puppies, Smith's students are feeling more accepted.

``These are kids who have never gotten any positive attention,'' Smith said. ``They are seen as the bad kids, and this is something they are proud of.''

Extension possible

The original plan was for 10 weeks of training that would end in mid-January. But because of the results, school officials are weighing extending the use of the dogs through the school year.

Edinger said they are considering various ideas, including having the students take the dogs into other schools or hospitals. They also are looking into finding vocational opportunities for the students, such as working as a dog groomer or in a kennel.

School officials want to make sure that the dogs are not removed from the class to the detriment of the students they were intended to help. ``We feel like we would be setting them up for real behavioral problems if we took the dogs away,'' Edinger said.

Return to Animals in Print 12 Nov 2002 Issue

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