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Visit a certain playground in Larchmont, New York, and you may see an amazing sight: a little girl climbing up the ladder to the slide, step by step, holding the harness of a golden retriever who's climbing right beside her. At the top the dog steps out onto the slide and whooshes down. Then, like the four-legged Nana in Peter Pan, she waits for her young charge to follow. Shrieking with delight, the girl arrives safely, throwing her arms around the dog, then using the animal to hoist herself up so she can do it again.
If it weren't for Radar, a specially trained assistance dog, 6-year-old Katherine Robb wouldn't be using the slide "all by herself." Due to a congenital brain malformation, Kate has poor balance and muscle tone and is unable to walk on her own. But since July 2007, Radar has made a dramatic change in Kate's life, giving the disabled little girl a taste of the independence her peers take for granted. Kate's isn't the first life Radar has transformed. The dog was trained in the East Coast Assistance Dogs (ECAD) program at Green Chimneys, a school for children with emotional, behavioral, social, and learning issues. Founded 61 years ago and set on a nearly 200-acre farm in Brewster, New York, Green Chimneys is renowned for letting four-legged "doctors" do the healing. Through exposure to animals kids are able to bond with other living beings, often for the first time. And by working with dogs like Radar or the center's 200 farm animals, these children, who have often "failed at everything in school," according to founder Samuel B. Ross Jr., get to experience success. "They become the master and the caretaker, and they see the value of their own work," he says. "In association with the animals, we turn them around."
When Radar's trainer, Michelle Toth, arrived at Green Chimneys in 2002, she was a 14-year-old with such severe emotional and behavioral problems that she stood out even at a school full of troubled kids. "The first time we saw her, Michelle was screaming, kicking, and swearing at two adults who were trying to calm her down," says Lu Picard, who with her husband, Dale, runs the assistance dog program at Green Chimneys. "You could hear her all over campus." The Picards saw this extreme behavior as a teaching opportunity and told the principal they wanted to work with Michelle.
Michelle was stunned when she heard the news. "Me? Nobody ever wants me. I mess up everything," she remembers thinking. But secretly she was thrilled by the vote of confidence and excited to work with dogs.
The puppies immediately began teaching Michelle two skills no one else had been able to: patience and self-control. The animals' natural sensitivity means that students see their emotions and behavior reflected back instantaneously, Picard explains. So if the students are frustrated or hyper, the dogs become scared or overexcited and aren't able to learn.
The program's strict rules reinforce the lesson. "If I acted out, I couldn't go to class," Michelle says. That happened to one of her classmates, and Michelle remembers the effect it had on the dog the boy was working with. "He was crying in his crate; he was so upset. And I thought, I can't do that to Radar."
Training Radar helped Michelle learn patience as well. "It's like teaching a baby the ABC's," she says of training Radar. "It takes time." During class and whenever she was free, Michelle worked with the golden retriever, who was originally considered "too lazy" to be a full-fledged assistance dog. Instead, she was slated to become a therapy dog, a job that mostly involves being petted. But Michelle felt Radar had greater potential. "I realized that when I was excited and motivated, so was Radar," says Michelle. Her instinct was correct: After six months of Michelle's intensive behavioral training, Radar had improved so much that she was switched to the assistance track. Six months later, Michelle had her own outbursts under control.
"Without this program I might be in jail or worse," says Michelle, now 20 and a full-time college student. In addition to her schoolwork she holds down two jobs -- one with ECAD, providing animal-assisted therapy to troubled children. She hopes to make this a career.
Meanwhile, "Radar's gotten Kate on her feet," says the little girl's father, Peter Robb, 46, a captain in the New York City Fire Department. "Holding the dog's harness, Kate can walk, and the more she walks, the more she strengthens her core muscles and legs. That means there's hope she'll walk on her own one day."
When Michelle learned Radar would assist little Kate, she was overwhelmed with happiness and pride. "Radar made all the difference in my life," she says, "and now she's doing the same for Kate."
Lu Picard, 47, first saw how dogs could help the disabled when her father suffered a stroke 24 years ago. She and her husband, Dale, were able to train their dog, Juliette, to help her dad get off the couch and to his walker -- which eventually helped lift his depression. It was then that the Picards, who had always been passionate about animals, realized that they wanted to work with dogs full-time. They both became professionally certified as assistance dog training instructors, and in 1995 they linked up with Green Chimneys and founded East Coast Assistance Dogs. The program has produced more than 100 child-trained dogs that are currently helping clients live with a wide variety of physical disabilities. For more information, go to www.ecad1.org.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2008.