By Danielle Nadler
It seemed like a typical classroom lesson.
Suzanne Elbeze asked her third-grade students to take turns reading aloud.
“Go ahead,” the teacher nudged her students along.
As they took turns reading a book about a man determined to tightrope between the World Trade Center towers, the students took a moment to pet their favorite member of the class.
A golden retriever named Cali.
The dog, who followed the students’ lead and sat quietly during story time, has been a weekly visitor to the Guilford Elementary School class for the past two months. In that time, she’s become more than a class pet. She’s helped the students make big educational gains.
Cali is one of eight therapy dogs from Sterling-based Heeling House. The specially trained pups work in five Loudoun County elementary schools, The Children’s Therapy Center in Sterling and Blue Ridge Speech and Hearing in Lansdowne.
Heeling House, which started just more than a year ago, specializes in what the organization’s founder Kathy Benner calls animal-assisted therapy. There are less structured programs that are intended to provide a feel-good moment with a pup, Benner said. But Heeling House aims to do more than that—to help people achieve specific developmental, physical or educational goals.
“Therapeutic horseback has really paved the way for this idea of meaningful therapy with an animal,” Benner said. “We’re not just playing with dogs.”
Volunteer handlers from the organization sit down with professionals at the site, whether teachers in the classrooms or therapists and physicians at the therapy centers, and plan how to use the therapy dog to reach those goals.
Elbeze said she’d read a lot about the effect therapy dogs have on students with developmental disabilities.
“It got me thinking, what would happen if we did this in a general education classroom,” she said.
She expected any cute, furry creature to be a bit of a distraction at first. Instead, she said Cali’s presence has actually improved her students’ behavior.
“It’s been amazing,” she said.
She treats the dog more like a student than a guest. She encourages classmates to be a good role model for the golden retriever by following directions and listening quietly during class. The best-behaved students get to walk Cali to and from lunch and recess.
“It gives them a sense of responsibility,” Benner said.
She’s seen the dog’s presence improve students’ behavior and build their confidence. One little boy who was afraid of dogs progressed from avoiding Cali to petting her while he reads. Another student, who would rather wander the room during story time than sit on the carpet with his classmates, is now one of the first to take a seat so he can be near Cali.
“He wants to be a part of the class now,” Elbeze said. “That’s a success for him.”
One student who once refused to do in-class assignments now does them willingly, even when Cali isn’t in class.
“That’s huge,” Elbeze said. “I think they feel like Cali is helping them through this.”
Eight-year-old Bryanna Hernandez said there’s something special about sharing a book with Cali. “I love reading with her,” she said.
And she wants other kids to enjoy that same experience. She encourages more teachers to consider making a therapy dog a part of their classroom.
“Other people love dogs, too,” she said. “It’s not fair for us to be the only ones to have Cali.”
Heeling House’s services are free, and the nonprofit holds several events each year to raise money. A fundraising event, Deck the Halls with Bowwows of Heeling Holiday Party, is planned for Friday, Dec. 12, at Barrel Oak Winery in Delaplane.
The group is always looking for more dogs and volunteer handlers to join its efforts. Those interested may learn at heelinghouse.org.
Contact Danielle Nadler at firstname.lastname@example.org.