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Special education's best friend?

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The Journal News, based in White Plains, N.Y., recently ran a nice article about a therapy dog that has apparently prompted wonderful results in a classroom of children with special learning needs. One 6-year-old with selective mutism -- a social anxiety disorder that prevented him from speaking -- apparently broke his silence just so he could talk to his mother about Boo, a 7-year-old Labrador mix.

Therapy dogs have had a long history in schools, but they are not universally accepted, for a variety of reasons. A few years ago, I wrote about a family that wanted their specially-trained therapy dog to be a part of their daughter's individualized education program, because giving the dog commands helped the child improve her speech. The school said no. The always-interesting National School Boards Association blog, "Board Buzz," wrote a piece in 2004 about a superintendent who got hounded (forgive me) for not allowing a dog that was specially trained to note the onset of seizures attend school with a student who has epilepsy.

So I'm glad to bring attention to a happy ending. There's only one thing missing from the Journal News article though -- words from the child in question! If the therapy dog has been so successful in getting this young child to speak, I'd love to know just what he's talking about.

1 Comment

Hey, Ms. Samuels, thanks for alerting me to this story. These heart-warming personal interest pieces pop up from time to time, as you show. I ran an entry about one just last month.

My cold, skeptical heart often sinks a few centimeters when I see stories like this, though. I'm not opposed to having pets; I have some myself (and I sometimes even talk to them). Nor am I opposed to having animals in classrooms; there have been many different ones in classes where I've taught.

I am concerned about what we make of these stories. I fear that such accounts reinforce the perception that some magic or mystical feature of education trumps the dogged (forgive me) work required to help students with disabilities succeed. I also am concerned about inferring a causal relationship between the presence of animals and changes in students' behavior.

For those reasons, among others, I found your interest in hearing what the child had to say to be especially relevant. Wondering about the benefits of animal-assisted therapy, I just ran a search of the APA Psych Info data base. I found 8 entries total, and there were (a) 0 (zero) entries when I limited the search to quantitative studies and (b) 0 when I limited it to literature reviews or meta-analyses.

Sigh. It looks like another example of the cosmetic-cardiac approach to education.

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