by Kathy Petreré (reprinted from Sheltered Life, Fall 2000)
"Watch, Miss Kathy! Watch Gracie jump through my arms!" hollers an excited Charlie from across the classroom. "Jump, Gracie, jump!" he commands my little black terrier mix. Right on cue, Gracie leaps through Charlie's encircled arms then whips around looking for a treat. For her, the jump was fun; for Charlie, it was mastery of a simple skill - getting a dog to jump through his arms.
Grace is one of my two therapy dogs who take turns working with me through the Humane Society of Indianapolis' Pet Partners Program. She and Aggie, my Shepherd mix, were both adopted from the shelter. They were certified last October and have been working ever since, primarily coming with me when I teach art.
During the past school year, I worked as an artist-in-residence through VSA Arts of Indiana teaching art to children with disabilities at a local public school and at the Indiana Juvenile Correctional Facility. Most of the kids I worked with had emotional problems, some severe, which made teaching a challenge. To better my chances of getting through to them, I enlisted the aid of my canine "teachers' aides."
It worked. The elementary school class I taught in had students who could barely cope with being in class, let alone learn something fun, like art. Once Aggie and Grace started coming with me, emotions were calmer, attitudes changed and minds were more focused.
It is astounding, the power therapy animals hold. At IJCF, girls who were terrified of dogs - especially big dogs - ended up laying on the floor rubbing the dogs' tummies, getting them to do tricks, giving them hugs and getting back big, slobbery kisses.
The kids adored the dogs and the dogs adored them.
And, honestly, there were days when I needed a dog for moral support and was grateful one of them was with me!
Aggie and Grace each have their own backpacks to carry their I.D.s, a crushable water bowl, small blanket and, most importantly, their snacks. They also carry candy, depending on the holiday. Aggie has also been known to help me tote my supplies when I need an extra…er, paw.
My work schedule is ever-changing so visiting a hospital or nursing home regularly isn't easy. To make up for this, I have just started to do "on-call" visits because it's easier for me to squeeze in a couple of single visits in a week's time than to have a set visiting schedule.
Nunzi, my 10-week-old pup, is already being socialized for therapy work. And I'm really looking forward to the day when some previously unreachable child will hold his or her leg straight out and gleefully command "Jump, Nunzi, Jump!"