A network to share best practices for children with special needs
Recently, I had the fortunate opportunity of interviewing some amazing people about their personal experience with their therapy dog named Breezy. Julie Brown Rubenstein and therapy dog Breezy (co-owned by Co-Owner Cheri Goggin (Bittersweet Kennels), are an amazing pair that travel to hospitals, nursing homes, youth groups, and the like. Julie happens to also have a son on the spectrum that benefits from Breezy’s amazing talents as a therapy dog! There are many research-based benefits for owning or handling a pet including decreased blood pressure, stress-relief, increased social interacti...
Check out the question-and-answer session below with both Jonah and Julie to get a personal perspective from a handler and a child with PDD-NOS.
Jonah (17 y/o soon-to-be Junior)
-How did you choose your therapy dog or did the dog choose you?
I think we got Breezy when she was a puppy. We got along well when she was growing up in our house. I was caring towards her. I feel Breezy chose me!
-What are the biggest/best benefits for having a therapy dog?
It’s like you have a friend with you. Always there to keep you company, makes you smile, and makes you feel like you’re not alone.
-Does your dog ever become a distraction in class or have an effect on other kids?
School does not allow Breezy to come in. But she does have an effect on other kids. My mom takes her to another high school in a special-ed class and those kids like having Breezy there. They change because she is there.
-Is there anywhere you won’t go without your dog? Where do you prefer to take Breezy because it helps you?
If I could take my dog anywhere, I would take her to school.
-What does your therapy dog help you do best?
She helps me stay calm and she helps me with conversations.
Julie Rubenstein (mom and passionate dog handler) “Please remember my dog and I are hear- to-heart, soul-to-soul to the person we visit. Nothing else matters except that moment in time in that room one-on-one! It is a sincere PRIVILEDGE to be a part of awakening a person’s senses…. whatever stage of life they are in. I specialize in hospice and special needs so all rose color glasses are off.”
-How did you become a therapy dog trainer?
Let me go back 20 years. I had no kids and went to a dog handling class. I felt passionate about dogs and was interested in becoming a dog handler because I knew I would be good at it. My dog Shayna and I were reading in libraries, special-needs classrooms, and hospice. We were opening up doors all over the city. The rest is history. I have trained dogs that were placed in multiple facilities. My dogs have seen the inside walls of hospitals, assisted living facilities, organizations, and even modeled for American Greetings® card company. I remember one experience when we went into a pre-op room where the mother and daughter were a mess. Shayna Punim (a golden retriever) calmed everyone down before the operation and, not only did it affect the mother and daughter, but also everyone in the room! Someone must be dog smart and people smart to be a dog-handler, knowing their body language, being sensitive, aware and assessing the situations. Tactfulness is key! And put your egos aside; it is not about us, but about the person and/or their family.
-Are there any specific disabilities you feel a therapy dog is good for?
Reading, talking, socializing, anxiety management, depression and emotional issues. You name it, and I’ve seen it! One of my dogs attends a life-skills class. These children have a range of issues from autism to behavioral or emotional issues. The foundation of the relationship between these children and the dog is trust and respect. Breezy assists the children in this class by helping them become responsible, they let their guard down (because the dog cares about them unconditionally). Breezy helps the children talk and become verbal. These children learn the results of their actions. The kids experience reward of accomplishment, they feel in control creating self-esteem, self-respect and, most of all, joy! The tough guy in the reading class (cool guy) would not give my dog the time of day. However, the last day of school he got on his knees petted the dog and talking to her. Breezy gets through to people. One example I recall is about a child who had nothing to do w/ me or Breezy, never smiling or interacting and making friends, not talking to anyone (teachers or students), etc. We introduced Breezy to them and they immediately began talking to me and the dog. This person opened up talking about things the teacher never knew. Both Breezy and I were invited to be part of her IEP team to help her better participate and express herself. Breezy was also imperative help during test-taking time. This one child was afraid to make the wrong answer on a test, so the child would completely freeze and were unable to function to their full potential. After getting permission from the school district, the principal, and the special needs director, she participated in a difficult graduation test passing all 5 tests! The dog was under the table lying next to her, sharing her space and calming her down. This child succeeded in doing something they thought they were incapable of doing. Then Breezy was gone for 2 months because she had a puppy, and this child reverted back to freezing up during tests. Breezy came back for final exams and the student passed, smiling again, even bringing Breezy a present. This student reaped benefits on multiple levels and was able to see the fruits of their work giving them self-esteem, fulfillment and success! Over the course of time, people open up. The students will talk to me, because I'm not the teacher. I'm hanging with their friend, the dog, Breezy. They talk to Breezy, their anxieties relax so that they can work through what is expected of them, and they accomplish it! We speak about safe things. Always neuteral topics. With an art project due, Breezy became someone’s subject, and they instructed me of where to place Breezy, how to position Breezy, and we ended up getting silly throughout the project with laughter and smiles. Breezy and I were her subject. She instructed us on what to do, and she got an A grade on the project!
-What are the inherent benefits of a therapy dog for a child with autism, aspergers or a child on the spectrum? How has the dog helped your son?
The dog understands them with no words needing to be said. They are their recess, their time out, their oxygen. Genuine and unbiased. Yes, a dog can lower blood pressure, but they are so much more! For children who is atypical, living in a world that we don’t comprehend, the dog goes to them and says, "you're okay." These children can pull and pet the hair, touch the dog, they can scream, make a faces, and the dog is unconditionally there. I can give you a personal example with my son, Jonah. Jonah has PDD-NOS and he wants to be like everyone else. We all went to Chicago for a youth group retreat and we took Breezy with us. At first, I had my girls or myself take Breezy out for a walk, to eat, or go to the bathroom. Then, I thought he should be taking her out so when people ask him questions, he will have to answer them, have conversations, and interact with the other kids in a comfortable and safe environment. In a crowded lobby, he answered questions and came out of his shell. Some kids were afraid of dogs, and he ended up convincing them to touch and be near the dog. This dog is a tool for initiating conversation, eye contact, as well as conversation starter. And, well, he actually worked the room!
Have you ever seen an inspiring story about people and pets? Let us know in your own blog or in the comments below!