Inside the Heeling House, Where Children With Special Needs and Dogs Are Working Together


Jolene, a 2-year-old yellow Lab, was specially bred to do therapy work.
Heeling House
Jolene, a 2-year-old yellow Lab, was specially bred to do therapy work.

At a new center in northern Virginia, special-needs children are working on everything from social skills and communication to reading and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills — all with the assistance of about a dozen delightful furry friends.


The Heeling House, which opened in November, offers programs for children from infancy through high school. It was founded by Kathy Benner, an experienced animal trainer. Her volunteers, along with their certified therapy dogs, have worked for years with children at therapeutic centers and in local schools on physical and occupational therapy. In fact, we told you about their work in a 2015 feature and want to update you now on the center.

Their new dedicated space is helping the nonprofit reach even more children in private and group Animal Assisted Interactions. Most of the younger children who attend the center are on the autism spectrum, while some of the older kids who are starting to go for a new youth group may be struggling socially or coping with depression or anxiety.


“We wanted to open the center so that we had a place that we would be able to explore all the different avenues — so that we would be able to have therapy dogs help our community,” Benner says. That includes the ability to work with students to do further research on how interacting with dogs can help kids.

Some of the dogs at Heeling House were bred for therapy work, while many others were adopted — but all of the dogs and their handlers have been certified by Pet Partners and continue to be trained to work safely with children.

A Proven Motivator

Including the dogs in the therapy and class sessions can lengthen a child’s attention span, break the ice and be a powerful motivator for them to try harder.

“They spend more ‘time on task’ — basically doing the things that the therapists are encouraging them to do and for longer periods of time when the dog is there,” Benner says. “They definitely spend more time engaging socially with each other, which is one of our big goals. The dog acts as a role model and kind of as motivation to speak to their peers.”


The dogs are trained to play cards and board games, and they can even do a little light bowling.

“It’s learning how to be patient when playing a game, waiting to take a turn, being patient if something doesn’t go exactly as they had planned, so the kids will practice being more flexible, because a lot of kids who have autism are fairly rigid in their thoughts,” Benner says.

Making Great Strides

The kids may also learn to give the dogs commands and guide them through an obstacle course.

“We see more sustained eye contact and focus from the kids, because we work on giving dogs commands,” Benner says. “Before they can give the dog the command, they have to look at the dog and the dog looks back at them. So, they practice being able to have that eye contact and address whoever they’re talking to directly” — a skill they can then use in social interactions with other people.

Tybee, a 3-year-old Portuguese Water Dog, can be silly and energetic or calm and docile.
Heeling House
Tybee, a 3-year-old Portuguese Water Dog, can be silly and energetic or calm and docile. Here, he joins in a game.

Just having the dog in the room while the children work with their therapist can be a comfort — and getting the chance to play with the dog can be a reward for their hard work. “If the child can finish the task or do what they’ve been asked or kind of hold it together for a certain period of time, then they’re allowed to go and play with the dog afterward,” Benner says.


Donna Merkle is Heeling House’s co-founder and has been part of the animal therapy team for 10 years, working with three dogs. Her Golden Retriever, RBI, recently passed away, and she currently volunteers with Tybee, a 3-year-old Portuguese Water Dog.

“The dogs are very attuned to the clients’ needs; I have learned to sometimes just let the interactions organically happen. Those are the most rewarding times — when you can watch this puppy you trained go into a situation and know exactly what to do,” Merkle says. “Recently, Tybee went with me to tell one of our clients about the loss of our therapy dog he had been seeing for several years. Tybee walked into the room, laid down beside the boy and put his head on the child’s lap comforting him. They immediately bonded. It was beautiful.”

“Enjoy the Warmth and Love”

Christopher, a 10-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, has worked for several years with Merkle and RBI, along with his physical therapist at the Children's Therapy Center in Springfield, Virginia.

“RBI was a great motivator in getting Christopher to do things while being relaxed more so than [Christopher] was with his physical therapist,” his mom says. “On a few occasions, he was able to stand against the wall and play fetch with RBI, sit on a bench and brush RBI, or just sit on the floor and drink water after all their hard work. There were some behavior issues that made Christopher anxious that we were able to talk through with RBI being right by Christopher's side. Of course, all the doggy kisses helped get Christopher to laugh and enjoy the warmth and love he received from RBI." Christopher has always had an amazing physical therapist, his mom says, but when he has a therapy dog by his side, his willingness to work increases.


At the new center, the dogs work with children on a wide variety of issues, and Merkle and Tybee have recently been helping a young girl work through her extreme fear of dogs. “She was not able to be in the same room without becoming very nervous and visibly showing signs of stress,” Merkle says. “The child and I worked on basic dog commands, building her confidence in situations with a dog. We started Tybee on the opposite side of the room, and as she saw how calm he was and that she had control of the situation, we were able to get him closer to her and build on additional commands. We then played games together like rolling a ball back and forth and Go Fish (yes, Tybee likes to play Go Fish!). As of today, the child is walking with, petting and even giving treats to Tybee!”

Merkle and Benner see amazing developments like this every day and hope to continue to see more of them as the Heeling House grows and expands its offerings, including plans to train assistance dogs for some of their clients.


“It is so rewarding to watch the look on a child’s face when they have done something for the first time because of the motivation and confidence the dog has provided," Merkle says.

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