Truckee special needs students get helping paw from canine companion | SierraSun.com

Truckee special needs students get helping paw from canine companion

Barb Wilkinson
Special to the Sun

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Navigating the rites of passage that mark high school isn't always easy. Sometimes it can be especially difficult — particularly for students with special needs.

In Jennifer Smith's Special Education class at Truckee High School, a special helper with sleek black hair and soulful brown eyes called "Fiona" has stepped in to lend a helping hand — or in this case, "helping paw."

Fiona is a trained graduate of Canine Companion for Independence. Founded in 1975, CCI is a nonprofit organization that assists people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support.

Headquartered in Santa Rosa, Calif., CCI is the largest nonprofit provider of assistance dogs, and is recognized worldwide for the excellence of its dogs, and the quality and longevity of the matches it makes between dogs and people. The result is a life full of increased independence and loving companionship.

Fiona came to Truckee High School as a result of a grant awarded to Smith as a recipient of the Linda Brown Fellows Award from the Excellence in Education Foundation.

As an award winner, Smith was recognized as an exceptional educator and gifted a $2,000 grant to enhance education within her classroom. She used the grant funds to facilitate her training through CCI in order to be paired with Fiona.

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After witnessing the positive impact that another companion had on her students during their weekly visits to the classroom, she found that students with significant anxiety were using the dog to help relax and practice healthy coping skills.

Other students with speech and language difficulties demonstrated progress through their ability to articulate firm, clear commands to the dog.

"Children with mobility issues benefited from the dog completing various tasks for them such as opening or closing drawers and cupboards, retrieving dropped items, activating the automatic door systems around the school, and turning on and off the lights in my classroom," said Smith. "Even students with an intense fear of dogs learned to overcome the fear and become proud dog walkers."

Canine Companions

Using advanced technology, the CCI breeding program meticulously selects and pairs dogs for breeding. Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and mixes of the two breeds have been selected as the most desirable assistance dogs.

Volunteer breeder caretakers provide homes for the breeder dogs and whelp the puppies, returning the puppies to CCI's national headquarters in Santa Rosa at eight weeks of age.

Puppies are then placed with volunteer puppy raisers across the nation for socialization and obedience training. Between the ages of 15 and 18 months, the puppies return to one of five CCI Regional Training Centers across the country for six months of training.

Once their training is complete, the dogs are teamed with a graduate during an intensive two-week "Team Training" period. The graduates are then required to assume all future financial obligations linked to the care of the dog by CCI.

They are expected to remain certified, and to utilize the dog to serve students with disabilities for approximately eight years, which is the average length of service provided by CCI dogs.

Student Impact

The impact of Fiona's presence on campus extends beyond Smith's classroom.

"She's such a gift. I've seen her impact not only students in my class, but the student body at large," Smith continued. "Many students and teachers stop in on a regular basis to visit her and often say that seeing her is the best part of their day.

"This interaction also helps to serve as a social bridge for the special needs students with the rest of the school population."

"Just seeing her on campus calms everyone immediately," added Assistant Principal Logan Mallonee.

If you see Fiona in the halls of Truckee High School or out and about with students in town, say hello and see for yourself the impact that her gentle, calm soul has on those she meets. Perhaps the students in Smith's class say it best:

"It is nice to be able to be around an animal friend at school. It feels really good to hang out with her, especially if I am having a hard day," said one of Smith's 10th-grade students.

"She is good at her commands, and I really like doing those with her. I like to sit and pet Fiona sometimes when I am working because it makes me calm and helps me to focus," added an 11th-grade student.

For more information on Canine Companions for Independence, visit CCI.org.

Barb Wilkinson is an Excellence in Education board member. Visit exined.org to learn more.