My Fair Doggies:
Eliza and Higgins steal hearts, teach lessons at Macomber School
WESTPORT — When cockapoos Eliza and Higgins stroll into Macomber Primary School for their weekly visits, everyone from the secretaries at the front desk to children on their way to other activities stops to say hello.
"It is like escorting a rock star down the hallway. No one notices me. It's all about the dogs," said owner Greg Stone.
Since 2007, Dr. Brenda Stone, retired district psychologist, and her husband, Greg, have been volunteering their time for "Cockapoos in the Classroom," a program they created which provides pet-assisted therapy and pet-assisted education to students.
Some sessions are geared toward teaching children about how to interact safely with dogs and care for them, while others are designed to provide therapy for students with special needs.
"During my career as a teacher and then a psychologist, my research had always been on reading disabilities," said Dr. Stone, explaining how she got involved in pet therapy. "But toward my retirement, I became interested in learning more about autism and how to help children with related social and emotional issues."
One recent school day, the Stones celebrated their 50th visit to special education teacher Renee Rego's multi-age classroom.
Shy at first, the students — a number of whom have autism — quickly warmed up to Higgins, a cream-colored bundle of curls, and his littermate, Eliza, a petite whirlwind of silky, black hair.
According to Rego, students who would not come anywhere near the dogs in the beginning are now reaching out and interacting with Eliza and Higgins. That's a significant accomplishment given that children with autism often have difficulty interacting with others and handling sensory stimuli.
Andrew Swift, for example, covered his ears and pulled away from the dogs at the start of the session, but he quickly became interested in watching the other students interact with the dogs.
Then Andrew, on his own initiative, reached out to touch a paw that Higgins seemed to be offering just for him.
The connection continued when Andrew proceeded to pet and talk with the dog.
"I have definitely seen an improvement in language skills and unbelievable strides in sensory awareness," said Rego.
Her excited students repeatedly made efforts to communicate with the cockapoos, especially during an activity where they needed to call the dogs through a tunnel.
Dr. Stone has seen so much success using dog therapy with students who have autism that she wrote an article on the topic that will appear in the May issue of "Exceptional Parent" magazine.
During the canines' recent visit, Rego used a sentence board where students had to choose a picture of what they wanted to do with the dog. They then had to verbalize their choice in a sentence.
Activities included walking a dog around the room with help from one of the Stones; "slapping five" by having a dog tap the child's hand; brushing a dog; and throwing a dog a toy.
"We help the children focus their attention on the activity by singing as they walk or brush the dogs. Singing about what they are doing helps the children transition into and out of the activity ... Eliza knows the words to the song and always sits down just before the child says 'Stop.' Her sitting also helps the children transition from the walking activity back to the circle on the rug," wrote Dr. Stone in the article for Exceptional Parent.
To learn about pet therapy and train the dogs for their duties, Dr. Stone has completed a number of classes and certificates, including pet therapy programs at the Community College of Rhode Island and through the Delta Society.
According to Stone, dogs can be very successful in the classroom because children tend to have an easier time relating to animals then they do their classmates and adults.
"I think (the dogs) seem to know the environment. They sense what the children need and are calm when they need to be and full of energy at other times," Stone said.
While the mixed-age class has become accustomed to pet therapy on a weekly basis, the mainstream kindergarten classrooms have pet-assisted education once a week for a three-week program that focuses on how to interact with dogs and care for them.
During the first week in Michelle Thomas' kindergarten class, Stone read the book "May I Pet Your Dog?" by Stephanie Calmenson. She also taught students how to ask an owner before petting a dog and how to hold their hands with their fingers down when greeting a dog.
"I look forward to this program every year. The kids love it, even those who are afraid at first," homas said.
Samantha Viveiros, whose mother told the school that her daughter was afraid of dogs, sat on her teacher's lap while the other students sat on the floor and pet the dogs.
The little girl soon found the courage to touch one of the dogs being held by Stone.
"I feel happier now ... Higgins is like a real, live teddy bear," Samantha said.
A highlight of the class was when the dogs jumped over cardboard bricks.
Future sessions will include lessons on how dogs communicate and how pets, like children, need someone to care for them.
Macomber Principal Susan E. Wilkinson said Eliza and Higgins not only contribute to the educational offerings at the school, they also bring an undeniable joy to students and staff.
"All (Higgins and Eliza) want to do is make people happy," said Dr. Stone. "Whenever they see the yellow school bag at home they just go crazy with excitement. We can't even say the worlds 'school' or 'go' in our house. We have to spell them."