If Valerie Keener needed confirmation that her efforts to bring joy to special needs students are successful, she got it a few weeks ago when her teammate, a 2-year-old boxer named Heidi, approached a young girl in one of the classrooms. As the child petted the dog, Heidi leaned over and licked her on the cheek. The little girl, who is non-verbal, began kicking her feet and squealing in obvious delight.
“Within myself, I had been questioning if our visits were having any impact on the children,” said Keener of Cuyahoga Falls who has been visiting area classrooms once a week since early October.
Although most of the children in the class don’t speak, their enjoyment rang through loud and clear as Keener and Heidi, a trained Thera-Pits team, were leaving. The children became animated in their effort to express their goodbyes, Keener said.
“As I closed the door behind me, I couldn’t stop the tears nor erase the grin that was on my face,” she said.
Keener said she visits area classrooms as an emissary of the Cleveland-based Thera-Pits program, a group of registered therapy dogs that works with children in U.S. schools. Thera-Pits brings dogs and children together through alternative learning programs.
Chris Hughes, a dog trainer and co-founder of the program currently operating in Cleveland schools, began the program to try to stamp out the stigma attached to dogs that are branded pit bulls, Kenner said.
Not all the dogs in the program are pit bulls, but they have all passed their Canine Good Citizen test and are registered therapy dogs through Therapy Dogs International. The program has 35 teams operating in Cuyahoga County.
Kenner, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than seven years ago, said she recently got involved in the program because she wanted to make a positive contribution to society. She thought the sweet-tempered Heidi could help her.
When Keener bought Heidi from a backyard breeder two years ago, the dog was obviously underweight, filled with intestinal parasites and lacked the necessary social skills needed to succeed as a pet.
“So, while we purchased her it was in large part a rescue because she needed out of where she was,” she said.
At the time, Keener thought Heidi could be a companion to her grandson who was born 12 weeks prematurely. She said she thought that as the pair grew, the dog could help her grandson overcome some of the obstacles preemies can face. Fortunately, her grandson’s early arrival proved to have no adverse effects on the child who is now 2 years old.
That good fortune left Keener looking for a way to put the sweet-tempered canine’s talents to good use. After passing three behavior training classes from beginner to advanced at PetSmart, Heidi sailed through her Canine Good Citizen test. She advanced to Hughes’ Thera-Pits program when Heidi passed her Therapy Dog International certification.
At present, Keener and Heidi visit two schools each week and have a waiting list of requests for service from several schools.
Keener’s goal is to get more people and their dogs involved in the program in Summit County.
“Any breed dog can be a therapy dog. It has nothing to do with the breed, only their temperament, personality and training,” she said, adding that the program is in need of new teams and an adult dog trainer who is qualified to evaluate dogs that would make good candidates for the Therapy Dog International certification.
“That’s what we really need to move this program forward in this area,” she said.
Anyone interested in participating in the program can contact Kenner at her email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other animals in the news:
Pet Photo Night With Santa— Furry and feathered friends can have photos taken with Santa 6:30-8 p.m. Sunday at Santa’s home at Summit Mall near Dillard’s North. Cost for photo packages is $19.95-$24.95.
Trunk Show — The Akron Zoo will host a trunk show from 4 to 7:30 p.m. next Saturday with vendors featuring jewelry, art, photos, and other merchandise. The event, with free admission and parking, will take place inside the zoo’s Welcome Center at the entrance to the zoo, 500 Edgewood Ave.
Happy Hour for Happy Trails — Fundraiser for Happy Trails Farm Animal Sanctuary at Pickwick & Frolic on East Fourth Street, Cleveland. The event will feature local television and radio celebrity bartenders and Patrick Bordeleau from the Lake Erie Monsters Hockey Team and Jordan Norwood of the Cleveland Browns. There will be raffles and an auction featuring tickets to several professional Cleveland sport teams’ games. All proceeds benefit Happy Trails that rescues and rehabilitates abused and neglected farm animals. Information, visit: http://happytrailsfarm.org/pickwick-and-frolic-and-cleveland-sports-host-a-happy-hour-for-happy-trails-on-dec-12th.
Breakfast with Santa at the RainForest — 8-9:30 a.m. Dec. 15, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, 3900 Wildlife Way. Event will feature a breakfast buffet and Get Close animal encounter, face painting, cookie decorating, crafts and Santa. $22.50, $18.50 for children and includes admission to the zoo. Reservations are required and can be made by calling 216-635-3306. Also at the Cleveland zoo: December Days at the Zoo from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 17-30 (closed Christmas Day) includes crafts, cookie decorating and live music. Children can visit with Santa and get pictures taken inside Wolf Wilderness from Dec. 17-24. There will be a Santa Shop, a fair-trade gift shop.
Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or email@example.com.