Dogs and children: They make magic
Story Courtesy of Pioneer Press
November 29, 2007
By NICK KATZ
Lolly Connolly stood back watching as her 8-year-old twins reached out a bit tentatively to pet the small beagle.
Since last November, Connolly has made the trip from Glenview every other week so her girls could deal with their fear of dogs.
As Kathryn and Erin petted the dog, Chiquita Banana, Connolly explained that Kathryn had a "bad experience" that left her with an overwhelming fear of dogs, something her sister also shared.
But watching them as they sat on the floor playing with the beagle, it was hard to imagine that just a few months earlier they were afraid to be anywhere near a dog.
In the months they have been coming to the headquarters of Rainbow Animal Assisted Therapy, the girls have made huge progress in getting over that fear, Connolly said.
"We're about 70 percent of the way there," she said. "I don't think people know how debilitating that fear can be."
In the 20 years since retired school principal Nancy Lind started Rainbow Animal Assisted Therapy, she has witnessed dogs comfort children in the hospital and help them overcome learning and behavior disorders.
Lind said dogs and children seem to have a natural affinity for each other. The dogs, she said, are nonjudgmental.
"The dogs go in and they don't have any ax to grind. The kids don't have an ax to grind. The kids intuitively know that," Lind said.
"I've seen them work with paranoid psychotics. The children become the caregivers, doing everything for the dogs."
To anyone familiar with the calm, companionship and security dogs can bring, the idea seems almost obvious — use specially trained dogs to help children with emotional, physical and learning problems.
Lind saw it first hand as a special education teacher. She would bring her dogs to school to work with her kids.
"The kids wanted more. There's so much you can do with a dog, any animal really," Lind said.
In January, Rainbow moved to a new 2,000-square-foot facility in Morton Grove in an industrial building on Oakton Street. While the building is short on amenities like air-conditioning, it is big on space, something the organization has needed for training classes and storage.
In October, volunteers celebrated the foundation's 20th anniversary with a gala dinner and benefit in Oak Park.
175 canine volunteers
Rainbow has about 175 dogs and their owners who volunteer at about 80 sites in six counties.
These include Children's Memorial Hospital, Michael Reese Hospital and Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center where the dogs work directly with children to help them improve motor and verbal skills and regain mobility and muscle strength.
Other programs are held in places like the Molloy Educational Center in Morton Grove where the dogs work with special education students, a variety of other schools in Chicago and the suburbs, park districts, local libraries, including Fremont in Mundelein, and even the DuPage County Juvenile Detention Center.
Libraries sponsor the Reader to Rover programs where children read to dogs.
That's one of the programs volunteer and board member Cynthia Gibson observed when she was considering volunteering for the program.
"I almost cried," Gibson said of the experience.
For Gibson, the idea of volunteering herself and her dog for the program was a natural.
"I love my dog like a kid. He is the best dog ever," she said. "If he makes me feel that happy, I thought he could make somebody else feel that happy."
Gibson said each dog must pass a certification test before joining the program.
"If they don't pass it they go back into training."
Gibson said golden retrievers tend to be good "sick people dogs." And labs also tend to be good with people.
"But all breeds can do it," she said. "It depends on the individual dog."
"I have two boxers. One is a therapy dog. The other one doesn't have the temperament to be a therapy dog."
Rainbow also matches dogs and owners with specific programs. It may take a different kind of dog to work in a school, camp or library than one in a hospital.
Even after a dog has been certified, the dog and owner undergo additional training.
Before any dogs or owners begin training, the owners visit ongoing programs and the volunteers that have been with Rainbow for some time, who also serve as trainers, will assess whether a dog has the right temperament for the task.
"They observe three different programs," Gibson said. "It helps them decide what they want to do. It's really good to see an experienced handler working."
That's followed by three observations with the dog along to see how the animal reacts to specific situations. Gibson said sometimes even a small thing may throw off an otherwise well-behaved dog.
"There may be a certain smell they don't like," she said.
Some programs in particular require extensive extra training, Gibson said.
Those include working with autistic children, or those in a psychiatric unit or a correctional facility. In some situations, Gibson said, the dogs themselves could be put in position to be injured.
The Rainbow headquarters in Morton Grove has stacks of wheelchairs, walkers, canes and crutches used to train dogs to work with children with physical disabilities.
On the walls are a poster of a child with a beagle, photos of volunteers and their dogs, awards and a special thank you note from "the kids of Stock School."
As she leads the dogs and handlers though their paces during a training session, volunteer Charlotte Projansky watches and assesses, looking at the way the dogs follow or don't follow the owners' commands.
"The whole point of doing this is to get the dogs to listen to you," volunteer Linda Lipinski said of the exercises.
In addition to the regular activities and programs, Rainbow has an emergency response team of dogs and handlers trained to assist in emergencies such as floods, tornadoes, even acts of terrorism.
Members of the team train with area firefighters and firefighting vehicles and equipment to get the dogs used to working with emergency personnel.
"They will go into a disaster," Projansky said. "We really are using the dogs' intuitive abilities. They will provide comfort to the victims, the families, the workers."
With the constantly increasing demand for services, Lind said the all-volunteer organization is sometimes strained.
"We're always juggling," she said. "I don't know. Somehow we just keep going."
Gibson said the board has considered hiring professional staff to help run the non-profit group. She and other long-time members say the group will have to do something to take some of the burden off of Lind.
At the same time, though, Projansky said Lind is really the heart and soul of Rainbow.
"She's like the dog whisperer," Projansky said.
For more information on Rainbow Animal Assisted Therapy,
visit www.rainbowaat.org or call (773) 283-1129.
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