Pet Therapy Helps Students at Camelot Therapeutic Day School of the Quad Cities

 In Camelot Blog

Students at Camelot Therapeutic Day School of the Quad Cities have a new stress-reducing friend.

Her name is Rafiki, a three-year-old big, fluffy brown, black and white labradoodle – and certified pet therapy dog.

Dog therapy is just the latest addition to the school’s array of therapies aimed at addressing students’ needs.

The school in Moline, IL serves students on the autism spectrum, others with severe intellectual disabilities, and others with social-emotional challenges. In addition to academics, students receive therapy that best fits their situation. Every day, each student engages in some type of therapy: speech; music; or occupational. The kind of therapy provided depends on a student’s individualized plan.

But this year animals have been nuzzling their way in. The school began equine therapy earlier this year, and after positive results with that, Dawn Brown and her certified therapy pooch have been visiting.

“It has been so exciting for me to see children thrilled to have her walk into their classroom or meet her in the hallway,” Brown said. “I have noticed some of the more hesitant kids are now becoming more comfortable with Rafiki and are even eager to get their turn petting.  Some of the kids especially enjoy watching her do some tricks or asking her to do the tricks themselves.”

But the idea of pet therapy is more than just fun.

“It’s an opportunity for kids to sit on the floor and have a relaxing and resetting moment, a break from academics,” said Program Manager Hannah Reade. “Most of our teachers take advantage of the dog’s expertise after some kind of hard task. For example, some students might struggle with math. That teacher might let students know the dog will be in after the math session is completed. In other cases, a teacher will have the dog visit before a difficult task as a transition. Rafiki (which means friend or companion in Swahili) can get them relaxed and prepared to move on to their next task.”

Staff members coordinate before each pet therapy visit to arrange a schedule. Classrooms at Camelot Therapeutic Day School of the Quad Cities range from 6-10 students so Rafiki has lots of company when she enters a room. Almost all students engage with the dog. Each class session with the animal lasts about 20 minutes.

Brown notes that as the handler, it is her job to constantly watch and react.

“I watch Rafiki for any signs of stress or fear and deter any activity that may be the cause,” she says. “I watch the children who are engaged with Rafiki in the moment and also other students in the room.  I need to be aware of kids who may be fearful of a dog or those who might need an individual invitation to interact with Rafiki. If there are children who need a little special attention to enjoy Rafiki, for instance, a child who doesn’t have good hand control, I may offer to put my hand over the child’s hand and help to guide the movements or give them confidence.  I show the kids how to behave with a dog and treat them well.  Overall, I’m there to make sure every encounter is positive and enjoyable for the child, the staff, and of course Rafiki.”

Reade says staff watch carefully to make sure the dog does not get too worn down in providing therapy in multiple classes.

“Dawn is phenomenal at what she does and is great at getting the dog down on the students’ level,” she said. “If Rafiki has worn herself out for the day, Dawn will let us know and we tell the kids ‘Rafiki needs a vacation’ or ‘Rafiki needs a personal day.’ And then we’ll work with the students on a story about what Rafiki is doing on her time off today.”

In fact, when Brown and Rafiki returned from an actual vacation recently, Brown said, “so many of the students asked me why we were gone so long.  It was nice to know they missed her presence.”

The pet therapy is a trial run for now. School leaders will assess how well it is working in bringing comfort and support to students and perhaps affecting their behavior and schoolwork. Dawn Brown is thrilled to be working with Camelot Therapeutic Day School of the Quad Cities.

She celebrated Rafiki’s Birthday with students, bringing balloons, and wearing matching birthday scarf and mask.  She said some students came back to her later with cards they had made for Rafiki.

“I am so impressed with this school,” she said. “Now that I have spent time watching the teachers, staff, therapists, and paraprofessionals, I am amazed. I have been on the receiving end of compassion and kindness.  We all need it from others, and we all need to give it to others.  Every child who needs it should have an opportunity like this.”

Camelot’s Therapeutic Day schools are part of the Specialized Education Services, Inc. (SESI) network that provides academic and therapeutic services for children, adolescents and young adults, ages 3 through 21 with extraordinary needs including Emotional Disabilities, Specific Learning Disabilities, Autism, Speech and Language, Developmental Delays, Intellectual Disabilities, and Traumatic Brain Injuries.

SESI is a premier provider of education services for K-12 students who face challenges that prevent them from being successful in a traditional classroom. SESI partners with school districts to run in-district classrooms and stand-alone schools that meet the academic, behavioral, social, and emotional needs of special and alternative education students.


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