Blue Ridge Autism and Achievement Center of Roanoke, VA is going to the dogs has taken on a new and improved meaning. They enjoy the services of a facility dog named Deuce, a two-year old Labrador Retriever.
A facility dog is one that works with a professional, such as a teacher or therapist. Instead of accompanying one person with a disability, like a service dog, this kind of dog must be able to handle many people throughout the course of the day.
After two years of training at Saint Francis Service Dogs and a $25,000 grant from the Foundation for Roanoke Valley, Deuce came to the center in mid-November 2012 to work with students on fine motor, interaction and reading skills. Within a few weeks, he was already having a positive effect on the children.
“One of our students who had no spontaneous language asked for Deuce a few days ago and then looked at him yesterday and said ‘dog’,” BRAAC’s Facebook page exclaimed.
The dog undergoes rigorous training, as it must be able to perform up to 50 tasks such as turning lights on and off, picking keys up off the ground and going for help if it looks like someone is having a medical emergency.
Then the dog must fit in with rigors of the facility. “It’s kind of a stressful environment for a dog,” said Angie Leonard, executive director at BRAAC. Leonard said Saint Francis Service Dogs tested about 10 dogs before finding the one that best fit the school of 60 students, some classified as typical peer models and others as having autism spectrum disorders.
Deuce will sit next to students as they read to him, fetch a ball they throw and accompany them as they walk him. Students earn time to be with him and that is a big motivator to do their lessons. “That’s pretty much our premise for teaching children, it’s to use positive reinforcement strategies, and he’s the biggest reinforcement, besides the computer, in the building,” said Leonard.
The dog encourages the students to pet him, even ones who are withdrawn, and that means a lot to parents who have been unable to connect physically with their children.
After the dog becomes used to the students, he will wear a vest with laces, zippers, snaps and buttons, so that the students can practice their fine motor skills on him.