Angela Swartz/Daily Journal
Rhett, a golden retriever and Labrador retriever mix, works with kids at North Elementary School.
Special needs students in Hillsborough are getting a helping hand of the canine variety with the school’s new facility dog Rhett.
Rhett, a golden retriever and Labrador retriever mix, was trained at the nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence with Alice Bliquez, special education teacher in the Learning Center program at North Elementary School back in January. The classroom aide is now a staple for the class of six students in grades K-5, assisting with communication, fine motor and social skills.
“Rhett is very helpful with the kids,” Bliquez said. “He’s very calming. It teaches them responsibility and independence. It’s also an outlet around school to meet people.”
Rhett was trained for two years prior to beginning his work at the school in up to 40 commands. Rhett was raised at a correctional facility in Portland, Oregon, where inmates were taught how to train him.
Now, Rhett assists the students. Students utilize speech generating devices called talkers in class, along with sign language and books with pictures. Rhett helps with calendar and attendance using his retrieve and push commands. The kids brush him to strengthen their fine motor skills. They also discuss him using their sound generating devices on iPads or other tablets, giving commands such as “can I walk Rhett, brush Rhett or feed Rhett?” He also helps during adaptive physical education by running, retrieving balls, modeling stretches, kicking and other actions. Rhett uses his retrieve command to hold bags so the kids can drop bean bags inside. He also pushes buttons on a musical toy.
Students look forward to seeing the dog and students type out expressions on their talkers such as “I feel excited” when asked how they’re doing before working with Rhett.
Students are willing to take more risks with Rhett around, said Mary Elizabeth Maher, director of student services for the Hillsborough City Elementary School District.
“It’s a phenomenal opportunity for dogs,” she said. “It’s very productive.”
The program means that Bliquez even got a new pet, as she takes Rhett home with her after school.
“There are access tests to make sure he’s keeping up with his commands and not just eating bacon off the table,” she said.
Facility dogs like Rhett provide a huge motivating factor for children and others participating in therapy, said Angie Schacht, development associate for the Canine Companions for Independence Northwest Region.
“One story I heard about is a dog working primarily with children with autism,” she said. “One boy never said a word for a year in the special education classroom. After a month he started to say ‘dog.’”
For more on the program go to cci.org.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 105