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Jennifer and Sully

According to Assistance Dogs International (ADI) (2023), a facility dog is a specially trained dog that works with a volunteer or professional in a residential, clinical, or educational setting. The dog is trained in specific tasks to provide support to the environments in which they work. These tasks may differ depending on the facility environment, client population, and number of clients that they work with. Facility dogs and their handlers complete training that meets specific standards set by Assistance Dogs International. See the link below for more specific details regarding the differences between facility dogs and service dogs:

https://www.gooddogservicecanines.org/post/what-makes-occupational-therapy-fun-animal-assisted-therapy-with-a-facility-dog

Researchers have suggested that having a specially trained dog in a school setting results in positive outcomes for the physical, mental, and social well-being of students (Becker et al., 2017; Brelsford et al., 2017; Niewiadomska, & Makris, 2015). For example, the presence of a dog can increase motivation for engagement in physical activity (Niewiadomska, & Makris, 2015). Specially trained dogs in schools can also enhance the cognitive, socio-emotional behavior and physiological responses of students (Brelsford et al., 2017). Furthermore, according to Becker et al. (2017), social skills training incorporating an animal might be more effective than other modes of social skills training.


Jennifer Spencer is a school principal who has experienced firsthand the powerful effects of having a specially-trained dog in a school. Jennifer obtained Sully, a Good Dog! while working at Dunmar Intermediate School, which is also an autism center. Before Sully, Jennifer held focus groups to seek input from the students about ways in which she could enhance the environment. She learned that the students wanted the school to feel like a home. When she asked the students, “How can we make the school feel like a home?” The answer she got was, “to have a dog.”


Jennifer began doing research to find a specially-trained dog for her school. She was met with many roadblocks not having a disability or having a child with a disability. When she came across, Good Dog! Service Canines, she was ready for another no. However, Jennifer reported that Laura Sylvester, Founder, and Executive Director of Good Dog Service! Canines is the “most supportive, and passionate person” and listened to what she wanted to do with a dog at Dunbar Intermediate School.


Jennifer kept in touch with Laura and one day got a phone call that would change her school in many positive ways. This phone call was about a dog who had gone through all the service dog training and was matched with a little boy. However, this dog ended up having too strong of a prey drive. While he was unable to be a service dog due to becoming distracted by small animals or birds outside, he did have the unique characteristics necessary to be a facility dog at a school.


While Sully has a positive impact on the entire school environment, Jennifer explained specific ways in which he has helped individual students. In a discussion with Jennifer, she referred to one student who used cutting and tearing things to self-regulate. When Sully was introduced to the classroom, this student was able to brush Sully to get the sensory input that they needed instead of seeking input in a destructive manner. This helped with overall participation in school. There was another student, who struggled with unsafe behaviors in the classroom which limited their participation at school in several ways. For example, they were unable to go on field trips off campus due to safety concerns. However, Sully and this student formed an amazing bond. After Sully, this student’s parents received far fewer phone calls about their meltdowns, and the student started going on field trips successfully, which was a first. Sully offered this student a means to self-regulate either through the “lay on” command or going on a walk.


Not only has Sully directly helped the students with autism but he has been a bridge to understanding students with autism for the other students. Before Sully, the students in the self-contained autism classrooms at Dunmar Intermediate School may have felt isolated from the rest of the school. However, Sully assisted with spreading awareness about autism and participated in presentations about autism. When students asked what Sully is at school for, whom he’s working with, and what he does for students, it led to amazing conversations that provided education about autism to kids who may not have learned otherwise. When the other students have asked about Sully’s purpose, they have learned about the challenges that individuals with autism face with becoming overstimulated and the ways in which Sully helps. This helps greatly with understanding and compassion for autism.


There are clearly many ways that having a specially trained dog can help a school environment. Jennifer wants people to understand that the impact of Sully is not simply related to the fact that a dog is at school, but the magical effects are because Sully is specially trained to perform the tasks needed for the specific needs of the students that he works with. More schools should have specially trained dogs to address the unique needs of some students and to also impact the whole school environment positively.


References

Assistance Dogs International. (2023). ADI Terminology. https://assistancedogsinternational.org/resources/adi-terms-definitions/

Becker, J., Roger, E. C., & Burrows, B. (2017). Animal-assisted social skills training for children with autism spectrum disorders. A Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions Between People and Animals, 30(2), 307-326.

Brelsford, V. L., Meints, K., Gee, N. R., & Pfeffer, K. (2017). International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(7), 669.

Niewiadomska, M., & Makris, M. (2015). Impact of canine-assisted therapy on emotions and motivation level in children with reduced mobility in physical activity classes. Physical Training and Sports, 19(5), 62-66.

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