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Dogs help Van Arsdale students learn

The program is in its second year at the Arvada school


Bella, a Labrador retriever, visits Van Arsdale Elementary in Arvada every Monday to work with students. She is one of three dog/human teams that are helping students learn fine motor skills, projection when speaking, reading, sequencing and impulse control.

“Lots of different skills are worked on, it really depends on what the student needs,” said Denise Gillette, a Van Arsdale teacher. “We’ve seen a lot of benefits. Kids that aren’t speaking out in class are now raising their hands and volunteering answers. It builds their confidence.”

Gillette started the dog program at Van Arsdale last school year. This year it has grown to include more dogs and more students.

Anxiety is another thing the dogs are helping students to quell.

“Petting the dog is really calming,” Gillette said. “It really helps build their self esteem.”

Each dog works with three students each week. Students who worked the program lsat year, rotate each week to give others a chance. Students working with the dogs have been identified by the special education team as needing something extra.

Student Collin Strange said that while working with Bella and giving her commands like “sit,” “stay” and “wave,” he has learned to speak in a clear, strong and happy voice.

“It helps her listen better and let’s her know that the person speaking is friendly,” Strange said after finishing up a Monday morning session with the dog and her handler.

Sharon Speuler, of Boulder, brings Bella to the school each week as a way of giving back to the community. She said dogs helped her overcome challenges growing up and this is a way to pass that on to others.

“I have a deep, deep passion for service and to bring good to the world,” Speuler said.

Speuler and Bella are part of the Human-Animal Bond in Colorado program at the Colorado State University School of Social Work.

The program started 35 years ago to improve the quality of life for people of all ages through the therapeutic use of companion animals.

The program helps train dogs and their human companions to visit schools, hospitals and nursing homes and to work with individuals to meet their individual needs.

Presently, HABIC has approximately 150 trained and supervised human-animal teams, providing services to 800 clients per week, in 50 separate programs.

The goal in the program at Van Arsdale is not only for the students to develop needed skills and bond with the dogs, but also find interests and create activities to make learning more fun. For example, on student who enjoys building talked about the possibility of building Bella a dog house later in the school year. The project will incorporate his interest as well as fine motor skills, and the need to sequence steps.

“It’s very, very positive for the kids,” Gillette said. “We’ve seen a lot of confidence built.”


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