Titus helps Red Lion students with learning disabilities
Titus, a 2-year-old black poodle sporting his signature Mohawk hair-do, bounded down the hallway of Pleasant View Elementary on Thursday to greet his students in the neurological support classroom.
"It warms my heart to see how excited he is when he comes in," said Kathy Vosburg, Titus' trainer. "He runs right into their classroom, he knows exactly where it is.
Titus is a service dog, and last spring he started visiting the Red Lion Area School District elementary school, where he plays with students facing learning disabilities to help them better build their social skills.
He joins in on class every Tuesday and Thursday, and spends his first half hour with Cathy Smith's class of kindergarten through fourth-graders, then spends an hour with Allie Wambold's group of fourth-, fifth- and six-graders before rounding back to the younger group for another half hour.
Students placed in the neurological support classrooms have a variety of disabilities like ADHD, spina bifida, visual impairment and issues with aggression, Smith said, noting almost all of the students struggle with impulse control.
Activities: Nathan Burkett, 7, said his favorite game to play with Titus is hide and seek. The rules of the game are simple: The students sit quietly in the dark and wait to be tapped by Vosburg; when it's their turn, they hide with her and Titus will come and find them.
The game helps students with focus, forces them to be patient while they wait their turn, and requires them to be quiet — which is always an accomplishment — when they're in hiding, Smith said.
Ten-year-old Blake Adams said he likes reading to Titus the best, an activity, Smith noted, that was not one her student enjoyed before he started sitting down with the poodle.
"He loves it," said Rebecca Crump, 9, of reading to Titus. "Sometimes he even falls to sleep."
And Titus does indeed enjoy story time. On Thursday he sat quietly with his paws crossed in front of him, "like a gentleman," Vosbrug said, while 13-year-old Mary Ann Kurchock read him a story about Spongebob Squarepants.
High-five: Because her students are older, Wambold said their time with Titus takes a bit more of an academic approach. For example, if they do a good job with their work or are especially focused during the day, they earn time to play and teach the dog tricks.
The students recently have been practicing getting Titus to give them a high-five.
Each student has to go through a list of steps to get Titus to perform the trick properly, Wambold said, noting this helped them with memory, patience and taking turns.
Lee Jacobs, 11, gave a sweeping bow after successfully getting a high-five from the dog.
"It's good that he's younger because he's still learning," Vosburg said of her 2-year old dog. "Training for dogs mean repetition, so going around to all the kids gives him that repetition he needs to learn something. And it’s more fun for him than just me doing it over and over with him at home.”
Smith said they like to make the students feel like they are Titus' teachers, which helps them develop accountability.
Mary Ann said her favorite part was petting Titus and giving him a treat after he gives a good high-five, even though he sometimes slobbers on her.
"He's a good dog and he's a lot of fun," she said, giving his Mohawk a pat.
In the class: "When I taught students with autism several years ago, I had a service dog that came in to help students interact emotionally with something else that's alive," Smith said. "It worked so beautifully, and when I came to teach here I couldn't help but think about bringing one in here too."
Smith ended up connecting with Vosburg, who has been training service dogs for 10 years, at church.
Last spring the pair got permission to bring Titus into the classroom and the students took to him quickly, she said.
"At first we had to go over and over the rules," Smith said. "They had to learn to control themselves with an animal in the room. In a short period of time though, my students had developed a remarkable pension to focus and to take turns."
Smith said she focuses a lot on movement, muscle memory and stimulating neuron growth.
"Working with Titus helps in all of those aspects but it also gives the students something of value," she said.
Both teachers agreed that their students have become more patient, more outgoing, and more respectful of their classmates.
"I credit the us of Titus as a very key factor," Smith said.
— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at firstname.lastname@example.org.