Unbabbled: Assistance Dogs in the Classroom

Benefits of Raising Assistance Dogs in the Classroom with Heather Hillery

Heather Hillery discusses how she integrates canine assistance and companion dogs into her special education classroom. Learn about the process of training an assistance dog, the research-based benefits of having a therapeutic dog, and why Heather feels so passionately about volunteering to raise them. Also hear examples of how having the puppies in classrooms has positively impacted her students.

About Heather

Heather Hillery, MSEd, CCC-SLP holds a BS in Economics and went back to school after raising her family to complete her Master’s in Education in Communication Sciences and Disorders. She has experience working with adolescents and adults with cognitive impairments in achieving their goals for education, life skills and job opportunities. Additionally, she has worked at the university level as an adjunct professor teaching undergraduate and graduate classes while providing direct clinical supervision. Heather is currently a lead educator in an elementary classroom at The Parish School and is raising her third puppy on The Parish School campus for Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that provides assistance dogs free of charge to adults, children and veterans with disabilities. She recently presented on both inquiry-based learning and the benefits of raising a service dog in a school setting at SXSW-EDU and at the Texas Speech-Language-Hearing Association's annual convention.

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Stephanie:                        00:05                   Hello and welcome to Unbabbled, a podcast that navigates the world of special education, communication delays and learning differences. We are your hosts, Stephanie Landis and Meredith Krimmel and we're certified speech language pathologist who spend our days at the parish school in Houston helping children find their voices and connect with the world around them. On this week's episode of Unbabbled, we sit down with speech language pathologist, Heather Hillery, to discuss how she integrates canine assistants and companion dogs into her special education classroom. Heather has experienced treating both adults and children with communication disorders and has worked at the university level teaching and supervising graduate students. Heather is currently a lead educator in an elementary classroom at the parish school and is training her third puppy here on our campus. During our chat, Heather discusses the process of training a canine assistance dog, the research-based benefits of having a therapeutic dog and why she feels so passionately about volunteering to raise assistance. Dogs are there also provides specific examples of the positive impact having the puppies on campus has had on her students.

Stephanie:                        01:13                   Hello, welcome. Today, we're here talking with Heather Hillery about canine assistant programs. She currently is raising a puppy on the parish schools campus and we're so excited to have her and the puppy here on campus. Sadly, the puppy's not in on the conversation with us today, but we do have Heather, so welcome Heather.

Heather:                           01:31                   Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

Stephanie:                        01:33                   Can you give the listeners a brief description about what a canine assistant program looks like?

Heather:                           01:40                   The one I am very familiar with and that I can speak to is canine companions for independence. They are an organization that has been around since the 1980s. Um, their mission is to provide highly trained assistance dogs to people who need them and we do that free of charge.

Stephanie:                        01:58                   That's amazing. What are these dogs trained to do for people?

Heather:                           02:03                   There are a variety of assistance dogs out there, but this particular organization trains them to be assistance dogs for people with physical needs for an assistance dog, for a child companion. It's called the skilled companion. Um, for a child with that would benefit from an assistance dog from comfort - kids with autism, kids with physical disabilities. We also train, um, highly trained hearing dogs. This organization does and all of those puppies are professionally trained in Florida. And the last thing that we do is we just got started with a program for PTSD for veterans and so we're very happy that that is a new program that has been introduced by canine companions for independence. And our last puppy Jill, Jelly Bean, who was turned in in may was accepted as one of the first puppies in that program. The state of Texas.

Meredith:                         03:00                   It's amazing.

Stephanie:                        03:01                   Oh that's fantastic. Yeah. Jilly Bean was here on our campus last school year.

Stephanie:                        03:05                   Yeah. Do you know ahead of time what program the puppy will go into when you get them?

Heather:                           03:09                   No. My job as a volunteer puppy raiser and that's what my position is. I'm a volunteer, so I have, I take these puppies at eight weeks. They are all born in California. They're shipped out to puppy raisers all over the United States. And I am one of them. I get them at eight weeks. And my goal, my job, if you will, is to teach them 30 commands and socialize them. And so by the time I turn them in at about 18 months, they will know 30 commands and they will be well-traveled and socialized so that they are not fearful of the environment and they're accustomed to most things.

Meredith:                         03:47                   So what got you involved with this program?

Heather:                           03:50                   I have always enjoyed training dogs. I as a speech pathologist in my career, I recognized right away the value of having dogs with me in my practice. Um, I would bring a pet that I had with me and I could see that there was a different, a definite shift, if you will, in my ability to reach a child, the outcome of the therapy session itself. So I decided that I would take my Labrador Retrievers all the way through certified pet therapy and I did and they started coming with me in my practice. And again, just recognize the, the value of having them.

Stephanie:                        04:33                   So what would be the difference between going through the certified pet therapy program and the assistant dog program that you're currently doing?

Heather:                           04:40                   There is a great deal of training difference involved. I'm a certified pet therapy dog does have to go through, a canine good citizen certification and then they would have to go through another series of tests to determine whether or not the dog was suitable. They have to have a specific temperament. They have to be able to be calm and not demonstrate anxiety. An assistance dog is highly trained to perform tasks.

Stephanie:                        05:11                   In your experience, what are some of the benefits and you have any story you'd like to share of having the dog in the classroom with you? Cause that's very unique.

Heather:                           05:20                   It is very unique. I'm fortunate to be able to raise a puppy and raise my puppies here on campus. It's really for a greater good situation to provide these dogs for canine companions for independence and also recognizing the benefits of the puppy in the classroom. One of the biggest benefits that I can see is self-regulation. There are rules that go along with having this puppy in the classroom because the goal again is to have this puppy be successful. So in the process of that, the kids have to demonstrate a lot of self regulation and follow the rules. I had a also a couple of years ago and he was having a very difficult time with writing. It was hard for him and he was highly resistant to it. Having the dog that we knew he loved nearby was very motivational so that I would say to him, if you write three sentences, I will put the dog bed next to your desk. And he really enjoyed falling out of his chair onto the dog bed and then the dog would come over and lay with him. And it was amazing what this boy could produce for writing when that motivation was present.

Meredith:                         06:36                   That's what I was thinking. Having a dog in the classroom could be a huge motivator for children to work on self-regulation and really apply these strategies that they've learned because they want the dog to be near them.

Heather:                           06:47                   Right. And when you think about what we try to help our kids with in class is the framework of goal plan, do review and there is nothing more motivating, more functional, more contextually based than having the opportunity to do this every day. What is the goal is the goal is to raise this puppy for this organization. What is the plan? And we follow through with what the plan is. We are in the do phase of it. Now we go back to the plan on occasion and then reviewing afterwards how well did that go, what could we change, what can we do the next time that could change the outcome? And so again, just from that very functional contextually based, um, format that we use, it's wonderful to see the results.

Stephanie:                        07:33                   Yeah, it gives them a job. It puts them in charge. They're not just self-regulating because the teacher said you have to sit here and self regulate and listen to my story. But they're doing it because they are have a greater good. They have a purpose. Like I need to stay in control. I need to not impulsively touch the dog because the dog's in training and my job is to help train the dog. So as part of that job, I need to work on my impulse controls. I saw that in the classrooms that I worked in, that it was just so beneficial that the kids, once they had that goal, like you said, and felt like they were part of it and that their self regulation increased with having a reason to do it other than just I have to do this because the teacher said so.

Heather:                           08:16                   And from a teamwork standpoint as well, I mean, they keep each other in check, they help to remind each other. And I think that as a community, when we talk about being more community minded within our classrooms, it's just a wonderful thing to have this present all of the time. To be able to, um, work on that to be able to focus on it, to be, to have that, one of the things too to think about is that, um, dogs and humans, the bond between them has been something that has, has, has taken place since. Um, in my research I found that it was, um, since about 350 BC and there are lots of, um, carving stone carvings and things that show humans and animals. It wasn't until about the 1960s that a child psychologist just happened to have a dog in his waiting room and children came in and he immediately saw the, that the outcome of his session was so much more rich and greater than it had been without the animal. And so he started to, he actually wrote a book about it and that has been happening. Um, since then that people recognize it, not enough people do it.

Stephanie:                        09:35                   Yeah. That's something I've seen firsthand on campus too, is that that just having the dog near some of our kids when they're having a motional times and struggling, it just changes them. We talk a lot about co-regulation and it seems so much easier for dogs to co-regulate with humans and stay calm and present and just be there than it is for adults. And the kids seem more open to that and their whole demeanor can change. Just having the dog right there with them to cope with the hard things like writing and reading and being a part of the group and teamwork.

Heather:                           10:10                   So from that point of view, I think it's, it's it, you can't dispute it. You really can't dispute the benefits of it. And then I think about the benefits of the communication aspect of it because then everybody wants to ask questions and what a lovely format. So they want to ask all the questions about the dog. They, um, they talk to each other about the dog. Um, they digest the answers that I give them about it. And, and, and just the back and forth. The, the reciprocal, um, opportunities that it produces is wonderful. And again, just functional because it's there.

Meredith:                         10:45                   And because you're doing the canine assistance program, I feel like it also offers our students this wider view of the world. So we're training this dog for a greater good as you said, so they can maybe take the opportunity and you can take the opportunity to teach them and for them to learn about veterans or about people with physical disabilities. It really can broaden their, their view of the world.

Heather:                           11:09                   And it does. And then we think about it from an inquiry based standpoint and what a beautiful opportunity it is to open up the inquiry into this and read books and do research and find the answers to things and talk to each other about it and interview people about it. So again, the language piece of it is, is just explodes because it's real and it's, it's interesting. One other area that, um, I have to tell you about, which was a benefit that I had not anticipated was that there is a, a young man on our campus who, um, is very fearful of dogs, um, couldn't get near them, was um, just absolutely terrified when I even had a small puppy on campus. As that dog grew and his relationship with that puppy grew, he is now several years later at the point where he said, I think I would like to apply for an assistance dog for myself. And his parents actually have just, they're beaming because they said without this opportunity to be exposed to a dog that is different from a pet, he might not be able to think about that. And honestly, he's eligible for a, a dog and, um, and really wants to get one someday. So that's a life changer. It amazing.

Stephanie:                        12:29                   You said it in the past, in your practice, you've brought dogs into your speech and language therapy programs. Is there much, is that being done frequently or is this kind of new?

Heather:                           12:39                   That's a really great question and I'm glad you asked it because in my research that I have done, people typically use dogs for motivation in the field of speech and language. Um, and there is, there are courses, believe it or not, offered in how to use dogs in therapy. Typically the only ones that I have found are in the field of social work so they can get certified social workers can in how to use dogs in therapy. There's a vast difference between using a dog as motivation and using a dog as a, as a goal. And we're not taught that as speech pathologists. Um, teachers probably wouldn't be taught that as well because, um, it's just not offered. Unfortunately. I am, I'm hopeful that I can make a change in that, um, at some point in time, but because I think that that enhances the therapeutic value when the dog is part of the goal. We had a very young child on our campus several years ago who had severe Apraxia of speech and she had a speech pathologist working through our on-campus clinic and we got chatting one day, the speech pathologist and I did about this young girl because she would come up to me and work so hard to indicate that she wanted the dog to come with her and again, speech production was very difficult for her. So the speech pathologist and I got together and determined the commands that have the speech sounds that this young girl needed to work on. They worked on the commands. I brought the dog down to the clinic and this little girl put the dog through its paces by using the commands. They took photographs, they wrote a book and she read the book to her mother. It just was you needed a box of tissues.

Meredith:                         14:45                   Yeah. That's amazing.

Heather:                           14:47                   It was amazing. It was amazing. And it happens here. Not planned at all, but again, the value of just having this puppy on our campus, we are finding out so many different ways that our children here are benefiting from it. That our staff here benefits from it. I have had staff come down and take breaks by sitting in my classroom outside and wanting to hold the puppy and it's just wonderful.

Meredith:                         15:15                   I just, I just overheard, um, someone in the administration building saying we need a dog on campus for us because we have a puppy here and all the staff are just oohing and eyeing over him and taking breaks to pet him and hold him and snuggle him. And everybody's getting benefits from it.

Heather:                           15:31                   Absolutely. And again, when you look back at the research, I mean I think about Florence Nightingale had a dog available in her clinic so to speak because she recognized the benefits of having pets. There. There is research that shows that blood pressure is lowered, that your heart rate rate decreases and that your anxiety decreases when you are petting an animal. So think about that. I mean, having knows we could all use a dog next to us most of the time.

Meredith:                         16:01                   Absolutely. Um, I have a puppy right now at home and not a therapeutic dog and by any means, but my son identified immediately how much joy and comfort the the puppy gives him. So when he's upset or frustrated, he'll often ask, I need Louie to make me feel happy. Can you go get Louis? Can you bring Louie? And it is like almost a miracle how quickly he self-regulate and, and regains composure and can communicate with the rest of us in the family about how he was feeling. But just by sitting next to the dog.

Heather:                           16:37                   It's such a cool thing because dogs are so nonjudgmental. And I think that that really takes the pressure off of everything. Right. And, and, and I think that, um, and again, as I said, from that stand point, how wonderful it is to have these dogs and again, to be able to pass our dogs along when we're done with them and see the greater good. There's nothing better I could cry thinking about it. I cry a lot when I turned my dogs in for sure.

Stephanie:                        17:02                   Yeah. If there's a therapist or educator listening and they're interested in finding out more about how they could become a part of it or getting trained for this, where would you suggest they look?

Heather:                           17:13                   You can go online, go to canine companions for independence.org and again, just really Googling a lot of other organizations, but the win-win of what I'm doing by raising a puppy for a greater good I think is, um, there is nothing better than that. But again, having a dog on campus, I've actually, I presented on this to Texas speech hearing association several years ago and I'm still in touch with people who are trying to get a dog on their campus. There are many barriers along the way because administrators typically don't understand and are fearful of the, um, the legal aspect of it. Um, but if you have a highly trained dog, um, you're winning the whole thing.

Stephanie:                        18:01                   Yeah. Okay. That is a good point that there are barriers to having it in, it might be easier in a private clinic than say a public school setting.

Heather:                           18:09                   Right now that is the case and it's sad, but I know that can change.

Stephanie:                        18:13                   I think that it's becoming a larger topic. I see it more and more pop up and maybe it's just because I'm aware of it now having a dog on campus, but it feels to me like it's becoming more popular within the society and more people are realizing the benefits of having canine companions and assistance and therapeutic dogs.

Heather:                           18:33                   I hope so. I hope that people are asking all of all of these questions and show more interest in it because of the value that it does present for this.

Meredith:                         18:42                   Is there any research out there on how canine assistance dogs or canine companions help children with speech language learning differences? Or is most of the research in the other areas that you mentioned like physical disabilities and maybe PTSD?

Heather:                           18:56                   That's a good question. Um, and again, in my research I did find that again, some of the therapists are using dogs as motivational, um, tools if you will. But when you think about it from a communication standpoint, I think a lot about the use of these dogs with individuals with um, fluency disorders and how anxiety, um, can exacerbate that and how wonderful that could be. There's some research ongoing right now in that area. Again, the communication piece of it because it presents itself so beautifully as functional and, and, and real. So it increases communication. Um, and again, the nonjudgmental piece of things really the therapist really can hide behind the dog and get so much more done.

Stephanie:                        19:48                   We had a program come out onto campus for many years where kids could go and read to the dogs and they just felt so comforted and like you said, not judgmental that the dogs weren't judging whether they read the words correctly or not and they just felt more at ease to be able to just really try and work through the difficult task of reading while they were learning to do it with their dogs there.

Heather:                           20:09                   I think that speaks exactly to what we're thinking about. And again, because the comfort level is increased with this beautiful animal sitting there and they just more naturally open up and try things and are and feel a little bit more comfortable with, with putting themselves out there and with trying things that are hard for them. So it's really, again, I knew it, I recognize it even more now and I'm so grateful to be able to bring what I know to this campus and benefit so many kids as a result of it.

Stephanie:                        20:46                   And they're learning so much from the act of it and just their confidence is another area that I've seen grow as well.

Meredith:                         20:54                   And I love you said earlier, it's win-win. You're, you're, it's a win win situation. We're training this dog for a greater good, but our, our children and our staff even are getting benefits from training the dog here on our campus.

Heather:                           21:05                   I think our dog is smarter too because our puppies are always available in my math class and the kids teach math to the dog on the, Oh, I love it. If you're ever thinking about having a dog on campus, don't give up. Um, there are ways to make this happen. It should be happening more often. There are people who are very happy to speak to boards of education, um, and board and board of directors, et cetera. And I think that, um, I would just say that the benefits are so huge that you can't give up. I encourage you to do it.

Meredith:                         21:44                   Before we finish, I have to ask if you have any funny stories about any of the puppies that we've trained on our campus that would be fun to share.

Heather:                           21:53                   A really funny story is when we were outside, um, it was very hot outside with the kids and one of the students in my class said, I think the dog is really hot and would love to have that swimming pool. It's a kitty pool filled with water so she could put her feet in it while she's watching us eat our lunch.

Meredith:                         22:13                   The dog would?

Heather:                           22:17                   I said, Oh, I think that the dog is definitely showing me the same. So they filled up this swimming pool with water. The kids sat around the perimeter of the pool in chairs, took off their shoes and socks. Had their feet soaking in the water and ate their lunch while the dog literally stood in the pool and drank the foot water that was in there.

Stephanie:                        22:40                   Oh, that's great. I love that. But what great perspective taking and figuring out how can I use this dog to my advantage to get what I want? Because I know if I ask Heather to do this, it might not go that way. Isn't that the truth? I love it. Such higher level reasoning and thinking they're speaking. Yes. All right. Well at the end of every podcast, we ask all of our guests that if they had one piece of advice to give our listeners, yep. We're putting you on the spot. It can be silly. It can be very serious. It can be about the topic that we're talking about or just any great life advice you have. If you had one piece of advice, what would you give?

Heather:                           23:19                   I think my advice would be to, uh, to let the students know that how important it is to follow their own ideas and not follow the crowd. And one thing that I usually say to help them remember that is only dead fish swim with the stream. Have an idea, know that it's a good one. Follow it. Thank you.

Stephanie:                        23:45                   This was such a pleasure and I've learned a lot, even more than after having the dog on campus for a few years.

Heather:                           23:51                   Well, thank you and thank you for having me and I love to talk about it.

Meredith:                         23:55                   So thanks Heather. Thank you for listening to the Unbabbled podcast. For more information on today's episode, please see our episode description. For more information on the parish school, visit parish school.org and if you're not already, don't forget to subscribe to the Unbabbled podcast on your app of choice. And if you like what you're hearing, be sure to leave a rating and review a special thank you to Stig Daniels, Amy Tanner, Amanda Arnold, and Stella Limuel for their hard work behind the scenes. Thanks again for listening.