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At Dobbs Ferry’s Springhurst School, Dogs and Kids on the Spectrum Teach and Learn From Each Other

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December 10, 2021

By Sue Treiman–

Every other week, a procession of four-legged, shaggy haired “students” arrive at Dobbs Ferry’s Springhurst Elementary School to learn from “teachers” barely taller than they are.

The pupils are Labrador and Golden Retrievers (and lately, some poodles). And their instructors are first and third graders thrilled to share several hours of lessons, learning and licking to help prepare the pups for their forever jobs, serving as helpmates and companions to youngsters with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement that has so far endured for 12 years.

“This has been wonderful, not just for students but for the staff, too,” says Lisa Brady, Dobbs Ferry Superintendent of Schools.

Naturally, a kid’s Best Friend

With an estimated one in 44 American children diagnosed with ASD, the demand for specially trained service animals is skyrocketing. So, too, is the need for sites to familiarize the pups with the world they’ll occupy as ASD companions. After working with a previous dog-training organization, Dobbs Ferry has been offering that opportunity to non-profit BluePath Service Dogs since 2017, to sometimes transformational effect.

“We’ve had ASD parents tell us they’ve seen their kids smile for the first time when interacting with a dog, and other parents say the child expresses feelings for the first time by attributing them to the dog,” says Michelle Brier, Vice-President of Marketing & Development at BluePath

Three to five pups spend thirty minutes in each of six classrooms bi-monthly. There, they face such serious challenges as ignoring unattended snacks, accepting too-eager pushes and pulls, and, most importantly, offering comfort when an ASD child engages in trademark behaviors –from clapping, to outbursts, to the repetitive or unusual movements of “stimming.” As the dogs overcome those obstacles, the children sharpen their own skills.

Out on a training march

The Centers for Disease Control describe autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a developmental disability that can alter a child’s communication, interactions, behaviors and learning. The continuum ranges from the estimated 40 percent of ASD children who are non-verbal, to the high-functioning mainstreamed students found in every school. It’s not uncommon for ASD youngers to wander off or “elope,” a potentially deadly behavior. Dogs are trained to stay vigilant, prepared to head off an escape.

“These dogs are trained to react quickly and without emotion to reduce and often eliminate the bolting behavior. And through their classroom work with children, they’re exposed to kids who behave in all kinds of different ways, which is invaluable,” explains Brier.

Dogs do more than just safeguard their young charges. According to a 2021 study in the Journal Autism, a trained dog can curtail behavior problems, while also improving a youngster’s social communication skills.

Springhurst kindergarten and first grade teacher Tricia Zarro is well aware of the power of the dog. When her son, Danny, was diagnosed with ASD at 20 months, she left her job to oversee his care – which included adopting an ASD service dog named Shade. The pup worked miracles.

“Autism had made my life small, but when Shade came into our home, all those closed doors started to open,” recalls Zarro. “I could take Danny out; he became more connected and the world started coming to us.”

Where Danny hesitated to interact with others, Shade broke the ice. Other children were charmed, intrigued, and receptive. Similar connections occur every other week at Springhurst School, as youngsters share their daily routines with their four-legged classmates.

“Having the dogs here gives our students the chance to better understand the role of service animals and to appreciate the difference these dogs make in the lives of people, particularly those with autism,” says Brady.

The dogs impact the regular population, too. Research has confirmed that the mere presence of a therapy animal can reduce blood pressure and release endorphins, cultivating a sense of calm and relaxation.

“I’ve seen anxious youngsters dispel their tension just by sitting alongside a kind and loving animal. And I’ve watched children, always under the supervision of professional staff, sharpen their skills as they read to the dog,” says Brier.

In fact, sharing a story aloud with a dog improves the students’ attitudes about reading, according to a 2017 report in the Journal “Early Childhood Education.” The pups also diminish a general fear of animals and cultivate tolerance by helping children understand and accept their ASD classmates.

BluePath takes that message to several school districts throughout the county as it trains roughly 80 canines at any given time. The animals are gifted to their forever homes at no cost to qualifying families, despite the $40,000 it costs for close to two full years of training. Relying on donations, fund-raisers and volunteer help, BluePath carefully matches graduating dogs with families within a two-hour drive of the company’s Hopewell Junction headquarters. Dogs unsuited for ASD therapy are placed with law enforcement agencies or adopted as pets.

For Zarro, whose son Danny is now 17 and considering college, BluePath has become a calling. She serves as the chair of the group’s board of directors, and is a tireless advocate for ASD animals.

“Everyone needs something different to be successful,” says Zarro, “and for some kids, that may be a special pencil or an adaptive seat. For others, it’s a dog.”

BluePath regularly works with two other Westchester school districts and visits many more, part of its ongoing pledge to ensure every eligible ASD child can connect with the ideal companion.

“We’re only scratching the service of what dogs can do in our lives,” says Brier.

“They have an uncanny ability to understand and support what people need. And when I see children and dogs together, they inspire hope and strengthen family bonds. I can’t think of anything more important than that.”

Best buds

Photographs courtesy of BluePath. The Dobbs Ferry School District authorizes publication of photos showing students, all of whom are in Springhurst’s general education program.

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