Everything You Want And Need To Know!
Where To Start
Are you interested in having a service dog in your classroom? The first step is finding an organization. I used one called Canine Companions, which is a non-profit organization providing service dogs to adults, children, veterans, as well as facility dogs to professionals working in healthcare, educational settings and criminal justice. Since 1975, they have provided dogs at no cost to individuals.
Canine Companions aims to offer independence to their recipients. The dogs are raised and trained by volunteers for the first year and a half. After that, they are handed over to the training facility and are expertly trained for 6 to 9 months with over 40 verbal commands. The dogs are trained in tasks such as: turning on lights, retrieve and delivering dropped items, opening doors, pulling a laundry basket, and more!
When the dogs complete training and the organization determines that you would be a good fit, you are invited to Team Training. This is a two-week training where you work one on one with a dog and the trainers. There are lectures, homework, practice, and tests. After the two weeks is up, there is a graduation ceremony! Canine Companions also provides a graduate support program that offers many services to graduates. You can find more about this amazing organization by visiting Canine Companions.
Service Dog vs Therapy Dog
This is always a big conversation starter! What is the difference between a service dog in the classroom and a therapy dog? I had the same questions when I started the process! A service dog works for a handler with a disability and are trained to perform tasks to lessen the symptoms of a disability. In that same sense, a facility dog is a service dog that is partnered with a facilitator working in a field (like education) that is trained to perform tasks that will motivate clients with different needs.
A therapy dog assists their owner in different settings that benefit clients who take part in therapeutic interventions. Therapy dogs are not trained to perform specific tasks and do not have public access rights, like service dogs do. Facility dogs also do not have public access rights either, unless the facilitator is accompanying the client.
To sum it up, the major difference is a service dog is trained to complete tasks that help their handler or clients become more independent and increase confidence. A therapy dog provides comfort and boosts calm feelings.
I was lucky enough to be matched with Connie after being on the waitlist for a little over a year! She is a facility dog that services students in my kindergarten Autism classroom. She is a 2 year old, Lab/Golden cross and a perfect fit for my classroom. I bring her with me to school everyday! She is very patient, calm, and friendly. The students love her and she helps tremendously when it comes to behaviors, transitions, and social skills. Having a service dog in the classroom helps with the mood of the students and staff, as well as the overall moral at the school.
How To Prepare Students
I believe writing a social story really helped my students understand that we would be having a dog in the classroom. In fact, most parents told me that their kiddo would read the story or look at the pictures every night before bed! I thought that was super special. In the social story, I included a lot of pictures of Connie, the equipment she wears, and rules for interacting with her. I also provided a letter to the staff about important aspects like not giving her treats, asking before petting, along with an explanation on how she will be providing help in my classroom.
In addition to the social story, I used a plush dog to model how to appropriately pet Connie. After modeling, each student got a turn to pet the toy dog. I also reviewed what not to do and then asked comprehension questions to make sure my students understood. I also asked parents to keep talking to their child about the change that was going to happen.
Getting The Classroom Ready
It is important that Connie has a safe space to take breaks. Just as we can grow tired from working long hours, service dogs in the classroom that are completing tasks get tired too. This is a large portable soft kennel with a bed and plenty of screened windows for ventilation. You can find this soft kennel on Amazon (affiliate link). Another element in preparing students for a service dog in the classroom was putting the kennel in the room a few weeks before Connie arrived. They were able to get used to it and we had many conversations prior to there being a real dog in the classroom.
Since I feed her at home in the morning, she only needs a water dish for the classroom. I set it right inside the kennel so that my students can’t play or dump it out and she always has access to it. I also make sure to keep extra dog food in my classroom, just in case. As you can see in the picture above, I made a sign so that my students know she is unavailable. A few parents donated approved dog toys for her too!
First Day Of Work For Connie
Bringing a service dog in the classroom is very exciting! However, it can also be overwhelming for Connie, myself as the handler, and the students. When introducing a service dog to the students, it is crucial to do so in a relaxed, calm environment. I started the day as usual, we met the students in the front of the school, came in the classroom, completed the backpack routine and started morning tubs. The students actually had no idea a dog was even in the room!
I had all of my students sit in a large circle. I once again took out the plush dog and we practiced petting with nice, calm hands. Afterward, I brought Connie out and everybody had a turn to pet her and shake her hand. For those students that were hesitant, they could wave or verbally say hi. I did not force anyone to pet her. I also did not take her around the campus for the first week so that she did not get overwhelmed and stressed. She had just been through a major transition!
How Connie Supports My Students
Connie is able to perform over 40 different commands. In the picture above, she is practicing playing a type of Ker Plunk game. Although she knows the command “get”, I still have to shape the skill to a specific type of game. She can then model for my students that are practicing social skills like; taking turns, learning to play appropriately, using language like “your turn” or waiting.
Connie can also play cards! She can grab a card from a selection in your hand. This can be used in so many different ways in the classroom. She can hold a color, letter, number, picture or a math problem. Students can identify what she is holding, solve the problem or find the appropriate response on their AAC device.
Requesting Needs And Wants
When students need to use the bathroom, but may not have the words yet, they are able to use this voice button. When pressed it says “bathroom”. In the picture above, Connie is performing one of her commands called “push”. She is able to model for the students to push the voice button when the bathroom is needed. After using Connie in this situation, I have had a lot more success with my students in requesting to use the restroom. Her nose also works to push buttons on an iPad!
Assisting With Tasks
Connie is pictured above practicing her command “tug”. She is able to open doors, pull an item, and she has even pulled a student on a scooter board. The ways that this could be used in the classroom and for my students is endless. You do have to be a bit creative when thinking about how to incorporate a service dog in the classroom.
Another way that Connie is able to help in the classroom is to retrieve an AAC device. I have 5 students that require devices in order to communicate. I’ve often had students that needed a device when having a meltdown and of course it wasn’t within reach. I’ve also had her pick up and bring back an item that a student might have thrown or an item that fell.
Other Ways a Service Dog Helps in the Classroom
Probably the most exciting command that Connie knows is called “Cover”. This is when she lays across a student’s lap for some deep pressure. She can also lay her head on a leg, nudge a student or put her front two paws up on a student’s lap. Connie also helps tremendously when transitioning to various places on campus. I can either put another leash on Connie and have a student hold it or I can have a student walk next to Connie. She can also be a huge reinforcer for a student that is having a hard day. Connie also loves playing fetch, this can be a great practice for gross motor skills!
Bringing the joy of a service dog into the classroom was a dream of mine since I started teaching 11 years ago! It has been awe-inspiring to see the difference Connie has made not just in my classroom, but also within the school as a whole. I have found it to be a fun, exhausting, innovative, and meaningful experience with Connie. Although it is a lot of responsibility, I am forever thankful for this opportunity. The possibilities of tasks that can be taught are endless. Connie is the most perfect fit for my classroom! Do you have any questions?