Tracy & Betsy
The tiny town ofMattawasits in the sun drenched rolling hills and apple orchards of easternWashingtonState. On a glorious, brisk autumn day its school yards are filled with joyous shouts, many in Spanish–the language of the hardworking migrant labor force that works in those orchards. In a small trailer near the back of the school complex, a very special class of 13 children with mental and physical disabilities is a flurry of activity, catching bubbles from the teacher, playing with a large puzzle on the floor, eating snacks. But the most coveted activity of all, and the one each child participates in regularly, is a hug and a snuggle with service dog for the classroom Betsy.
Tracy Arlt was both a dedicated special needs teacher and a devoted animal lover when she met a service dog in training one fateful day two years ago. With the backing of a supportive school administration and every single family in her class, she set out to learn more about the relatively new field of “service dogs for the classroom.” Her internet research led her to CDK and she traveled to the NEADS campus a year ago to meet Betsy—and fall in love. After a year and two busy classrooms she says that Betsy has met every single goal she had before she started the program—and the team has come up with a few more.
Betsy’s first role is to promote focus and she finds herself in all kinds of lessons from academic to social skills. For example, many ofTracy’s children can be less then enthusiastic about reading and reluctant to participate in a circle or one on one with a teacher. But get Betsy in a corner and they are glad for some opportunity for one on one with their favorite snuggle muffin—so much so that they will pull out a book and read it to her just to prolong the time! Taking turns can be another difficult task for those with limited attention or difficulties with impulse control. Betsy has neither and she will sit and play buzzer games forever—as long as she can get her turn!
Betsy’s second role is to give confidence. Tracytells of one child who spent the first week of school curled in a ball under a classroom table, afraid to come out to even meet her classmates and teachers. But sometimes a furry face can be less intimidating then a human one, and with Betsy’s help she now has the courage to face the class. Another child was shy on the playground but his job is now to hold Betsy’s leash—and he has even found that she will follow his quiet whispered commands. A grin the size of theColumbia Riverspread over his face when he showed me “sit.” Confidence and focus can be a powerful combination outside the academic classroom, and sometimes Betsy visits other therapists on campus withTracy’s kids. Her favorite is the agility tunnel in physical therapy for a super game of “catch me!”
And Betsy’s third role is to create calm. Thirteen special needs children is a huge challenge and it seems like nearly all the time someone is having a bad day. Sometimes that just needs a Betsy kiss and sometimes some more prolonged therapy is in order. Of course a tantrum on the floor pretty much precludes any “Betsy therapy” and children learn quickly to get what they want they need to exercise some self control. Children with physical disabilities have worked hard to control their movements and learn how to pet Betsy’s soft fur or even comb out some of those pesky mats that goldens can be prone to!
Betsy has been so successful thatTracyhas been invited-twice!-to present her experiences to a conference of her peers. She downplays the whole experience saying that its easy to speak on something so positive and so inviting. Through a series of video taped interactions with Betsy,Tracypresents a powerful story of how much a loving well trained dog can change the lives of those with challenges.
The end of the school day has come, the children have climbed on big yellow school buses and the classroom has finally fallen silent. Betsy, exhausted, lies on the cool floor thumping her tail when the teachers walk by doing their last minute chores. She is no doubt anticipating her van ride home and an evening spent “cape free” romping with her best buddy Router a Boston terrier. In addition to Tracy’s husband and four children, Router and Betsy share the Arlt home with five horses, four cats, three chickens and a parakeet (did you think I was kidding when I said Tracy was an animal lover?). But best of all, there is always tomorrow morning when she will wait anxiously at the door whileTracytells her to “get dressed” so that she can visit her special kids all over again.
By: Mia Maccollin