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Assistance dogs are in a class of their own

by Chris Diefenthaler, Executive Director, Assistance Dogs International, for publication on 24 January 2023 (Unesco International Day of Education)

When I was at school - and I’ll admit that was quite some time ago - the sight of a dog in the classroom or playground was a rarity. Dogs and education just didn’t mix, period.

Fast forward a few decades and assistance dogs, facility dogs and therapy dogs are increasingly part of school, college and university life. For most, that’s a positive experience - but the growing popularity of dogs in educational settings makes it all the more important to make sure they are trained to the highest possible standards.

That’s where Assistance Dogs International (ADI) comes in. As we celebrate the Unesco International Day of Education, it’s worth reflecting on the hugely positive impact that ADI certified assistance dogs are having - both for the young people who rely on them for support throughout the school day and their fellow students and teachers. ADI member programs all over the world provide assistance dogs to young people with a range of physical and neurological disabilities, enabling them to go to school, learn and play alongside other children in a way that would not have been possible for previous generations.

Take Joel, who was seven when he was diagnosed with autism. He also has ADHD, speech, language and sensory impairment and a sleep disorder - making it nigh-on impossible to enjoy the same school experience as his peers. Thanks to ADI member Dogs for Good in the UK, who matched him with autism dog Caddie, Joel was able not only to go through school but is now in further education. As Joel’s mum Janet says, “I never thought for one moment that my son would be able to finish school. Now he’s going to college. None of this would have happened without Caddie.”

Joel’s story - and countless others like it - underlines the benefits of having an ADI certified assistance dog in the classroom. Increasingly, ADI members also train and provide school facility dogs to support the whole school community. While school facility dogs are not assistance dogs, these dogs offer comfort, counselling and motivation to both students and teachers, and have been shown to boost social and learning skills.

For example, ADI member The Ability Center Assistance Dogs runs a successful school facility dog program in Ohio, USA, known as the Allie Project. As well as training and providing facility dogs, the Allie Project offers teaching resources, lesson plans and training around its unique Head, Heart, Paws and Tail approach. Klaudia, a student at one of the Allie Project schools, reflects on the support that facility dog Hayden offered when she was struggling in 7th Grade: “Hayden is someone you can go to when you need a hug, when you need to get your mind off of things, or when you need to talk to someone who won’t tell your secrets. Hayden and I soon bonded and it became my safe place.”

Another ADI member, paws4people®, has taken school facility dogs to a whole new level with its Educational Assistance Dog (EAD) program for public schools. EADs are now used for regular and special education classrooms, behavior modification, physical, occupational and speech therapy, reading improvement and a range of other educational settings. EADs have now been rolled out across North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia involving 50 different schools.

Older students are also giving back by enrolling as puppy raisers and trainers. Indy-pendence Service Dogs is a registered student organization at Illinois State University (ISU) whose volunteers foster and train assistance dogs for ADI member Paws Giving Independence. Assistance dogs in training are a common sight around the ISU campus, accompanying their student trainers as they go about their normal daily routine of classes and other activities. For those wanting to take their studies to the next level, the ADI accredited Bergin College of Canine Studies in California offers both Master’s and Associate of Science in Assistance Dog Education degree courses, with graduates going on to work in the assistance dog industry all over the world.

It’s worth remembering that while most of us take our education for granted, schooling is denied to millions of youngsters around the world. According to Unesco, six out of 10 children cannot read and understand a simple story at age 10, while 244 million children and youth are still out of school. I’m not suggesting that assistance dogs are the answer to universal education - unfortunately, ADI members can only reach a tiny fraction of those in need of support - but assistance dogs are playing a vital role in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and in particular SDG 4 which aims for inclusive and equitable quality education for all.

ADI and its members are tireless advocates for the rights of assistance dogs and their partners to access education facilities and university campuses to enjoy a truly equitable and inclusive education - and we can all learn a lesson from that.

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