DOBBS FERRY, N.Y. ? Student at Springhurst School in Dobbs Ferry are learning the art of patience and friendship from man's best friend in a program called Heeling Autism.
They are also helping to train the dogs to be matched with autistic children.
Kindergarten teacher Tricia Zarro has welcomed Heeling Autism, an affiliate of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, into her classroom since 2010 to help her students learn more about “service” dogs.
Zarro, who teaches an inclusive classroom with Joan Kaminski (the classroom includes children with disabilities), said she hopes to teach the children to embrace differences that "make us who we are." Nearly 500 Springhurst children have been involved in the learning experience with service dogs.
“We all need different things so that we can be successful learners,” Zarro said. “Some children need glasses, some children need speech or adaptive seating and some children need service dogs. We [talk to the class] about how [the children] are dog trainers and how it is our job to help prepare these dogs."
Zarro said the children teaming up with the dogs to take walks around the school.
"We walk outside and take the dogs on the playground, through the cafeteria, even on class trips to the supermarket,” the innovative teacher said.
Since Heeling Autism's inception in 2008, 43 dogs have been placed with families of children with autism. Each dog costs approximately $45,000 to breed, raise, train and match with a child, at no cost to the families. The program’s current waiting list is three years.
Heeling Autism dogs are trained to prevent a child with autism from “bolting” and are an important element in keeping the child safe. The children and dogs work together as a team, and when a child tries to take off, the dogs become “anchors” ? either sitting or lying down to keep the children safe.
“The dogs that successfully become autism service dogs need to be passive, calm, have high distraction tolerance, no body sensitivity and complete trust," said Caroline Sandler, director of Heeling Autism, which is based in Yorktown. “The No.1 task of the dogs is to prevent the child from running off and possibly injuring himself. The added protection of a service dog can facilitate a family’s ability to participate in outside activities."
For more information on the Heeling Autism program, please visit the Guiding Eyes For The Blind website.
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