Aquatic Therapy Program uses pets to teach water safety | SierraSun.com
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Aquatic Therapy Program uses pets to teach water safety

ABHUTCHISON, Sierra Sun

We all know that dogs are good for many things – their loyalty, fetching balls and friendship and companionship. They help solve crime cases, protect our homes, lead the blind and touch human life unlike any other animal.

Now, man’s best friend is taking to the water to help children learn water safety.

A handful of dogs in the U.S. have been trained to help familiarize disabled children with the means of assessing a body of water, identifying depth and water currents, underwater obstacles and terrain. A special aquatic program using specially trained and certified therapy dogs was started at Lake Tahoe in 1997.

American Red Cross Statistics show that the second leading cause of child/infant fatalities is accidental death by drowning. The aquatic program has been expanded to serve as a community water safety project for all children living near a body of water.

The program, called the Aquatic Therapy Program, includes Delta Society Pet Partners Program Animal/Handler Teams. It was originally created to familiarize blind children with the means of accessing a body of water, said program director Joanne Stacher.

“My first dog, Prima Ballerina, visited the Foundation for the Junior Blind and so I became familiar with these children, and the ways they bonded with this dog, along with their love and fear of the water,” Stacher said.

“The program began by encouraging play between handicapped children and the dog involving them in minor retrieving games with tennis balls and other flotation toys. The children were then taught commands the dog had been trained to respond to, both at water’s edge, and in the water.”

Stacher’s second therapy dog, Prima Bear, was also desensitized to various flotation devices that disabled children used in the water and became accustomed to wearing a harness and dragging lightweight objects. The goal during the program’s first year was to incorporate the swimming activity at the Summer Special Olympics and other local camps for multi-handicapped children.

Truckee-Donner Park and Recreation District summer camp children recently participated in the community water safety class held at Donner Lake’s West End Beach.

The campers worked with certified therapy dogs Cookie, Minnie and Morgan and completed three animal-assisted water safety activities. In the first exercise, campers walked step-by-step out from the water’s edge to help identify water depth and where the edge started to drop. The children counted their steps, and stopped when they got to their knees.

“The dogs stop when it gets deeper, and won’t let (the children) go past the depth of their knees,” Stacher said.

The children also walked with the dogs in the water to identify obstacles and, finally, worked on understanding water current. For this last activity, the dogs would pull the children in rafts in different directions. The children were to decide whether they were going with the current or against the current.

When the program is used with special education students, the children also work with the dogs to practice hand signals, verbal sequencing skills, verbal recognition, lateral balance and upper and lower body mobility.

The dogs are there to help protect the children in the water, make them feel safe, and assist in teaching children water safety.

“These dogs are extra smart because they they’ve been in a dog learning school,” said 8-year-old TDRPD day-camper Tyler Graham. “In case someone doesn’t know how to swim, these dogs can help. Plus, this is cool because we get to learn stuff and not just have fun all day.”

Working with the dogs and not just adults help the children remember what they learn during the class better, Tyler said.

And, according to Stacher, that is the point of the program. “We hope they will use their heads and will think about some of the things we talked about when they are swimming,” she said.

The certified animal handlers complete an 8-week training session with Stacher before they can begin working with children.

For information on the program, call 550-1342 or 550-0620.


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