Assistance dogs help city students with range of disabilities

Delight, a Canine Companions for Independence therapy dog, will help students with behavioral issues and disabilities.

Jamie Allen-Zic, assistant principal of P224Q in Bellerose, was a little nervous before her final exam last week.

She had spent two weeks training with a dog, appropriately named Delight, at Canine Companions for Independence in Medford, Long Island.

But even with a friendly, furry partner, Allen-Zic felt the pressure.

“It was extremely intense,” she said. “Every day I would remind myself I am doing this for the good of my students. You want to do your best.”

The two passed with flying colors and now Delight will accompany Allen-Zic to school every day to help students with a range of disabilities including speech and language impairment, intellectual disabilities, autism and behavioral issues.

“Dogs can be a catalyst for social and emotional learning,” said Allen-Zic, 37, who lives in Levittown. “We used therapy dogs in the past. [Students’] faces would light up whenever they would see one of the dogs enter the room.”

Canine Companions trains dogs to help serve people with a range of disabilities. Volunteer puppy raisers help prepare the pooches until they are about 18 months old. They return to the Medford facility, are matched with a handler and undergo intense training. And not all dogs make the final cut.

Those who do are invaluable partners to people who need help with tasks such a picking up items and keeping balance. For example, pups paired up with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder even learn how to “sweep” rooms to make sure they are clear.

Clients are not charged for the dogs, but are financially responsible for their care. Delight is being trained specifically as a facilities dog to work in a health care, visitation or education site.

According to CCI, facility dogs can follow over 40 commands focused on motivating and inspiring clients.

“We are confident that Delight’s unique abilities and presence will make a positive impact in the educational experiences of New York City students,” said Debra Dougherty, northeast executive director of Canine Companions for Independence.

The cuddly black Labrador will have a busy school schedule. Sometimes she will serve as a real, live writing prompt for students. Others will curl up and read to her.

“She will help teachers as they work with social skills, such as learning to take turns and illustrate that we all have differences,” Allen-Zic said.

Delight will spend time in the school counselor’s office to spread some unconditional love.

Allen-Zic said teachers have already seen the positive impact of dogs in schools, including one student who never vocalized at all until setting eyes on a visiting pooch.

“We were also able to purchase a vest for Delight to wear so kids can use their fine motor skills and practice zipping and buttons as part of occupational therapy,” she said.

Since Allen-Zic works in a year-round program, Delight doesn’t have to wait until September to meet students. She will be heading to school on Monday.

“[Students] are ready for her and she is ready for them,” said Allen-Zic. “She definitely lives up to her name. She is a ray of sunshine.”

Lisa L. Colangelo