Center for Spectrum Services’ therapy dogs help students connect

Collin, Lulu and Juliet Weissberg. (photo by Christina Coulter)

Although Finnian, a Saugerties student at the Center for Spectrum Services in the Town of Ulster, is uncomfortable maintaining eye contact in conversation, he has no qualms locking eyes with therapy dog Lulu — or, for that matter, walking and training her.

In conjunction with play and speech therapy, spending weekly time with the Therapy Dogs International-certified border collie can help improve Finnian’s conversational ability, spatial awareness and his fine and gross motor skills.

Finnian holds a slack pink leash attached to Lulu’s harness; Juliet Weissberg, the dog’s trainer, holds another leash attached to the same jump ring. Walking Lulu, even in this assisted manner, gives Finnian a sense of accomplishment. Moreover, even walking alongside their parents often doesn’t come naturally to children on the autism spectrum — walking alongside and controlling a dog helps Finnian develop that awareness.

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The pure simplicity of dogs, their speechless, straightforward emotional signals, make them motivating and appealing to kids on the autism spectrum. Dogs don’t use sarcasm or slang, and have a much smaller range of facial expressions and body language — they don’t cause the bombardment of multifaceted social cues that autistic children have problems with. Weissberg, who has worked as a psychologist at Spectrum for 13 years and is trained in applied behavioral analysis and relationship development intervention, recognized these benefits after bringing her dogs with her as a treat for her students last summer.

“[Weissberg’s] passion for animals makes a beautiful nexus with her understanding and talent for working with students with Autism,” said Jamey Wolff, co-founder and program director at Spectrum.

Initially an agility dog that competed at Westminster, vision impairment cut Lulu’s show career short. The 8-year-old collie is gentle, calm and affectionate — even before her six-week TDI course, her suitability for working with children was apparent to Weissberg.

“I had two of my own dogs as I child — I got them mainly because I enjoyed training them,” she said. “I ended up pursuing a career in psychology because of my love of behavioral sciences and how it affects [the way] animals are trained. I chose to work with children on the autism spectrum for the same reason, as the most effective ways of teaching children with autism are based on behavioral principles.”

Although any breed can serve as a therapy assistance dog, only those that actively seek out affection can qualify. Eligible dogs are devoid of aggression, can heel beside someone quietly and respond to the command “leave it.” Likewise, only students that are especially receptive to canine interaction utilize Lulu’s services during their therapy sessions; although most of the children at the school know Lulu by name, only about 10 work with her individually on a regular basis.

Collin, an 11-year-old student from Wappingers, helps to train the dog in conjunction with his speech therapy. Before Weissberg uses her training clicker, he will issue a command and reward her with a treat when she completes the trick. Eventually, he will graduate to using the clicker himself. Although Lulu already knew standard tricks like lying down and playing dead, students have taught Lulu new tricks, like standing on a chair and giving high-fives.

“[These sessions help students] use language clearly and see a response, in this case from the dog,” said Weissberg.

Although Collin initially fidgeted nervously, his hands calmed when Lulu trotted into the therapy room. His tolerance of her excited licks served as a testament to his improving acceptance of wet sensations; he pet her softly, a far cry from the grasping and fur-pulling that he employed in earlier months. Before the session began, his speech therapist needed to urge him periodically to “join the group” and converse — as he pet Lulu, however, he talked at length about his own dog, and perfectly recalled the names of all of the pets owned by the staff in the room. His speech therapist, using the dog as a non-threatening conversation piece, coaxed Collin through a conversation about the dog’s actions, temperament, and comparisons to other dogs and animals. Oftentimes, he takes Lulu to visit students and staff at the school, a series of social interactions that would typically be difficult for the sixth-grader.

According to Collin’s speech therapist, Hope Brennan, Collin is far more receptive during therapy sessions that include Lulu, and has need a marked improvement in his social interactions since he began his tandem training sessions with Weissberg.

When asked whether Lulu is a “good dog,” Collin enthuses that “thinking about Lulu makes [him] happy.”

As he does in every session, Collin asked Weissberg if he could take Lulu home at the end of their session.

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