Friday, November 23, 2012
Black lab puts training to work in Roanoke County autism school
A black-haired newcomer is helping educate, entertain and calm the children at the Blue Ridge Autism and Achievement Center in Roanoke County.
JEANNA DUERSCHERL | The Roanoke Times
Students at the Blue Ridge Autism and Achievement Center welcome Deuce the black Labrador retriever to their classroom. Deuce was placed at the school after training at the Saint Francis Service Dog Foundation, thanks to funding from the Foundation for Roanoke Valley.
Elleena Robertson, 5, pets Deuce on the head in her classroom at the Blue Ridge Autism and Achievement Center.
There's a new dog in town.
The Blue Ridge Autism and Achievement Center in Roanoke County recently welcomed Deuce, a 2-year-old black Labrador retriever.
Deuce is a trained service dog who spends eight hours a day at the center. Deuce's placement was made possible by a $25,000 grant from the Foundation for Roanoke Valley, which will be awarded to Saint Francis Service Dogs.
"Deuce is our first facility dog placed in a school setting," said Cabell Youell, executive director of Saint Francis. "Deuce will work with teachers, administrators and aides in a variety of circumstances to enhance the students' educational experience."
While a service dog is paired with an individual with a disability, a facility dog is matched with a professional in fields, such as health care, education or law, to help multiple clients in a common setting, Youell explained.
Angie Leonard, executive director at BRAAC, said Saint Francis tested about 10 dogs before finding the "right" one for the blended school of 60 students, some typical peer models and others with autism spectrum disorders.
"It's kind of a stressful environment for a dog," Leonard said.
Take the kindergarten and first-grade combined classroom on a recent morning, when Deuce still was getting used to his new workplace. Deuce's handler with whom he lives, Stacey Reid, a program director at the center, instructed the dog to lie on the carpet. Five-year-olds Elleena Robertson and Taylor Anderson rushed over to greet the furry friend. Aharon Popchak, 7, brought a book to read to Deuce. The fourth student in the classroom, Josh Crump, 6, remained seated at a table, timid around the canine.
Aharon read from the Mercer Mayer picture book "Just Go To Bed," but the other children were too excited by Deuce to listen to the story. Not Josh, who said he likes animals except dogs; he remained seated across the room.
"I have a pet fish," Josh said. "His name is Eenie Meenie Nemo."
Josh, with a bit of coaxing from one of the school's therapists, moved to a chair near a corner of the rug where he could get a closer look at Deuce.
The dog has been at the center for about two weeks, and he still is getting acclimated to the building and the students. Ultimately, students will walk, groom and feed him.
Some students will use Deuce to improve eye contact and communication skills. The dog soon will be outfitted with a vest bearing laces, zippers, snaps and buttons, which will allow the students to practice fine motor skills.
Playtime with Deuce may be an incentive offered by some teachers. The dog will accompany students on community outings and attend BRAAC board meetings or Individualized Education Program conferences.
"There have been a number of studies about the calming effects of dogs," Leonard said.
Talk of adding a Saint Francis facility dog at BRAAC began about two years ago and became a reality with the grant award.
Alan Ronk, executive director of Foundation for Roanoke Valley, said the grant is paid from the foundation's Phalia M. and Guy M. Kinder Fund and its unrestricted Community Catalyst Funds.
"One of the objectives of the Kinder Fund is to support programs that promote the positive relationship between humans and animals," Ronk wrote in an email.
Deuce is Saint Francis' second official facility dog placement, Youell said. The organization trained another dog to work with a physical therapist in a Tidewater-area rehabilitation center.
Youell said a Saint Francis dog was placed experimentally at Friendship Retirement Community in Roanoke several years ago. Max, who worked with physical therapy patients, is now retired.