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Therapy Dogs in Lowell Help Teach Safety, Social Skills

December 14, 2018
A window inside American Training in Lowell, where therapy dogs are being used to help teach people safety and social skills. SUN/Julia Malakie Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

LOWELL -- Link is a puppy’s puppy.

During a recent visit to American Training, the 12-week-old German shepherd wagged his tail, whined a little and looked for treats. At one point, Link clumsily sat on the face of Dominic, an older German shepard who patiently waited for the young dog to get up.

But Link -- like Dominic -- is also a teacher.

Organizers at American Training, a nonprofit serving adults with disabilities, said weekly programs with these dogs help teach safety and social skills.

“Usually when a therapy dog comes in they just hang out and pet the dog or whatever, but we’re like how can we touch upon more skills? Teach more skills while utilizing the dogs, because that’s a great way to get people engaged,” said Curriculum Coordinator Stephanie Bradbury.

Weekly visits by Link and Dominic to the American Training location on Industrial Avenue are accompanied by lesson plans.

On Wednesday, Developmental Specialist Yasmin Arroyocruz led seven people enrolled in the center’s habilitation program through the different kinds of service dogs. A video showed dogs helping people with anxiety, Tourette Syndrome and physical disabilities.

While a video of a disabled man who was struggling to change clothes played, Arroyocruz described what was happening.

“But watch when the therapy dog comes in,” she said. “He feels better, right?”

A question and answer session followed the video, where many of the people in the program discussed their own pets.

“When I’m really sad my dog always hugs me and everything,” said Maria Morales, a Lowell resident who said she has four dogs.

When it was time for people in the program to ask questions to the dogs and their owner, Mary Farren, a Billerica resident who runs What a Nice Dog, Nicole Daigle of Lowell, chimed in.

“My only question is why do they have to be so darn cute?” Daigle said.

Then those in the room took turns petting the dogs, feeding them treats and holding Link on their laps.

Kevin Clegg of Dracut patted the dogs. How did he feel?

“Really good guys,” he said.

Bradbury said the next lesson focuses on how to interact with dogs in public, including what to do around police dogs.

“You would need to know this stuff if you’re going out into the community,” she said.

She said another location of the Merrimack Valley nonprofit had a police K9 unit come in to teach. The organization is developing a third lesson and plans to continue the program, according to Bradbury.

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins

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