Imagine children who do not have it so easy. Imagine children who are 13-years-old and still cannot sit up successfully on their own. These children are dependent on those who care for them. Every morning of their lives, assistance is needed to get certain children with special needs out of bed, change their diapers, get them dressed, put them in their wheelchairs, and feed them through a g-tube in their abdomens. These children cannot express their needs in a conventional way, so loving caregivers need to anticipate the children’s needs and hope they get it right. These children do not have the motor skills to run around with friends or snuggle with loved ones at night. They do not have the expressive communication skills to introduce themselves to new people. Each of these children has a unique personality that is just as strong as their peers -- they just need to find a way to show their special strength and unique character to others.
Now imagine that you are blessed to work with 100 of these incredible children between the ages of 3 and 21 every day as a social worker in a school designed just for them. You spend every day figuring out how to show the world what amazing children these severely impacted students are. You tirelessly work alongside expert speech and language therapists to figure out what communication system each student can best access. Maybe it is a switch the students press with their head that indicates “yes” or “no;” maybe it’s a device they navigate with their eyes; or maybe it’s a book with symbols they point to with their finger. You then teach them how they can use that communication system to interact with their peers and show them the power of language and social interaction. This development takes time and conventional interventions do not always work. You are continually researching new ideas and innovative techniques to offer your students.
During exhaustive research, you discover a new term in assistive-services: facility dog. You are intrigued. Encouraged by the possibilities of animal-assisted intervention, you spend five years exploring this new field. You learn that facility dogs are not pets and not even therapy dogs, but that they are service dogs with specialized, task-specific education. Facility dogs undergo two years of intense training before you even meet them. Facility dogs are socialized in a variety of common and even unpredictable and highly interactive public environments, such as Disneyland, so they are resilient and not easily overwhelmed. Facility dogs are trained to assist physical and occupational therapists by pulling and pushing objects to help their clients build strength and balance. Facility dogs are trained to focus-to-task when it is time to work -- and given ample opportunities to play and explore when they are off the clock relaxing with their human partner.
You soon recognize that a facility dog is the type of service dog you need for your students. Imagine all of the essential bridges this dog will build when serving the children! A skilled canine partner can model the importance of communication by “speaking” or pressing a communication switch with his paw or nose. He can teach the importance of self-care by letting students brush him. He can foster peer interactions and the importance of asking for assistance by playing fetch. The possibilities of positive human-animal interactions are endless and are all backed by decades of science. This dog will be specifically prepped and placed as a result of evidence-based research demonstrating that task-trained facility dogs can help students reach their full potential, especially students in special education.
I do not need to imagine this scenario. These are the children with special needs I am blessed to work with every day and this is the type of highly skilled dog I want to partner with to give these children greater access to their learning environment. In my personal life, I have been blessed with canine family members for decades – I have raised, trained and cared for them and have recognized their tremendous value. I would love to bring the amazing power of the human-animal bond into my professional life, and simply cannot think of a population who could benefit more from a trained facility dog than our vulnerable and unique students.
My school is excited to explore animal-assisted interactions. My peers are enthusiastic and welcome the opportunity to collaborate with my skilled canine partner and me. Given the significant budget restraints that schools face across the nation, I am on my own to raise the necessary expenses to bring a facility dog home to serve my unbelievable students.
Here is what it will take to turn this dream into a reality:
The agency I am applying to requires that I fly from Colorado to California at least three times, and possibly six or more times throughout my dog’s life for interviews, a two-week initial training with my new partner, and follow-up advanced trainings. Travel will require airfare, a rental car, lodging, and food.
Advocacy and thoughtful planning for the health and well being of all parties is essential to this process. As many of you know, raising a dog includes many quality-of-life components, such as proper food, training, equipment, and healthcare (visits to a licensed veterinarian and regular grooming). Since I work in an intense environment with a medically fragile population, I am going to need to take particular care to ensure that my dog is healthy, well balanced in work and play, and well groomed. I will also have to look into personal liability insurance in addition to pet insurance.
Many of our students have limited fine motor skills, which can present challenges when interacting with others. I would like to purchase some special equipment that will make these interactions easier, such as gloves that have brushes attached so the students can brush the dog. Any surplus funds I have would be used to purchase specialized equipment designed to increase student interactions with our facility dog.
My students have captured my heart in a very special way. I am eager to find new ways and means to increase the quality of their social and educational engagements here at school – to set them up for success with joyful, accessible, measurable and meaningful interactions with other living beings, two and four-legged.
Thank you for your thoughtful consideration, and, should you be able to contribute in some way, for your compassionate participation in this special project. Donations of any size are welcome. With your help, we can open a world of paws-ability to my students and those who care for them -- with your help; we can make this dream a reality.
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