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For 8-year-old Johnathan Ingersoll, the physical and occupational
therapy he goes through to help with his cerebral palsy and seizures is hard
work. But in the last year, he’s gained a big — and sometimes slobbery — partner
to assist him in his sessions.
Atlas, a 2-year-old French Mastiff, is a therapy dog
who works with the patients at the Children’s
Therapy Center in northern Virginia, under the guidance of his handler,
Kathy Benner, from the nonprofit Heeling
Atlas first started working with Johnathan to help him with standing
and walking. Johnathan usually uses a wheelchair to get around the center, but he’s able
to walk down the hallway while holding on to Atlas’s harness. The
pair quickly developed a good rapport, and Benner has been bringing Atlas in
weekly to help Johnathan with other issues, including improving his memory and reciprocal
communication through games they play together.
“Johnathan is like a whole different
person when Atlas is there. He’s very focused, and he’s just very motivated to
do things that he normally isn’t motivated to do,” says his mother, Jen
Ingersoll. “Atlas changes his whole outlook on therapy.”
Using specially trained dogs to help kids with physical, occupational and speech therapy is a trend that’s gaining traction. This fall, Benner will start bringing the
dogs to help children in Virginia’s Loudoun County Public Schools.
Benner, who has a background in animal training, approached the Children’s Therapy Center about voluntarily bringing in her
therapy dogs to work with the kids.
The dogs — two who belong to Benner and three others who she handles — have therapy dog certifications through
Pet Partners. Benner then continued to train them, first on interacting with kids and then on more specific behaviors that are unique to the work they do. “Especially when you’re working with children and dogs, safety is the number one thing,” she says.
Benner is always in the room with the dog during a session, and works closely with the therapists to create a plan to help the patients reach their goals.
The dogs she brings in have different strengths and personalities, and they are carefully matched to the child. The child then works with the same dog each time — whether that’s weekly, biweekly or monthly.
Ingersoll also has an 8-year-old daughter who gets therapy at the center, for high-level communication and sensory issues. But Catherine is paired with a 5-year-old
“She’s very quiet, so she works with Hobbes, who’s a very high-energy dog,” Ingersoll says. “They’re a good match because he kind of peps her up, where Atlas kind of chills Johnathan out.”
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