Circle of Love
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.