Service Dogs for Children Part II

Last week, I introduced the use of therapy dogs for children and adults with autism. This week, I would like to introduce Gail Hakli Jaite, a retired music teacher of 30 years from Cardinal schools. Many people will remember the numerous concerts and plays that Jordak Elementary students performed. Toward the end of Gail’s career, she was asked to teach agility classes for Kenston Community Education. That was the jumpstart for her new career when she retired. In 2002, a dream was realized, and Tall Pines Dog Training was started. Gail has shown her own dogs in obedience, agility, and hunting and retrieving competitions, while, at the same time, making sure her dogs were certified therapy dogs. “I like my dogs to have a well-rounded education, just like my students in school.”

Tempo STAR
Tempo STAR

Many elementary students will remember Tempo, one of Gail’s chocolate labs, who would visit the school and work with special needs students in Mrs. Van Horn’s class. Tempo had a unique ability to know what to do before he was even told to do an action. He would avert his head if a child was fearful. He helped a student to walk when he held onto his collar. Gail quickly realized this dog was something special.

“I knew I needed to expand and help many children”

Soon, Tempo was not only a therapy dog, but also was registered with Delta Pet Partners, an animal assisted therapy program. He was one in a million, and in time, could touch many lives. So when Gail retired from teaching music at Cardinal, she thought there must be a need for a therapy dog in the schools.

In 2007, she had approached Jocelyn Mills, the Director of the STARS program, about therapy dogs working with special needs students to help them reach some of their goals. What started off as an idea has now become a growing group of dogs and handler teams working with the STARS program at Cardinal. The teams consist of Gail and her two labs, Tempo and Rocky, Sonja Paetzel and her dog, Ellis, and Holly Krueger with Grace and Moses. Ed Plottke, with Brandon, and Bonnie Jemison with Carlee have also been team members. Next year the team will have a new addition -Larry Buehner and Roscoe.

Child with dog at STARS
Child with dog at STARS

The activities the students do with the dogs vary, depending on a written goal that the teacher has put into action. All students are taught safety around dogs, then depending upon the age of the student, other activities might include: counting brush strokes, identifying colors of dogs, collars, and leashes, identifying body parts of the dog and their own bodies. Students learn to hold the leash and walk the dogs. Sometimes they identify letters in certain words or in the dog’s name and their own names. Sometimes, they sing songs to the dogs, read stories or read sight words. It may be just the calming reflex of lying down beside a dog and stroking it.

“This program has been so rewarding,” says Gail. Several students who were terrified of animals, now own their own dogs. Some mannerisms that go hand in hand with autism disappear when the dogs come to visit. The dogs are the students’ friends. They do not judge; they give their hearts. They only give unconditional love. It takes a special kind of dog to work with special needs students. The team at the STARS program has what it takes, and they love what they do.

This wonderful program has been a valuable stepping stone for Jason as well. He has opened up to our dog, Harley. For years Jason did not engage with our dog, even though he has been a part of Jason’s life since he was born. He now pets him, gives him treats, and even makes cheese and mustard sandwiches for him. This has been a great achievement for Jason. Thank you, Gail, for such a great opportunity for my son to be able to bond with our dog. Harley is very protective of Jason, and he understands now that he loves him unconditionally.

Rachel Dannemiller
Author: Rachel Dannemiller

Rachel is a lifelong resident of Geauga County. She is married to Tom and has a son Jason, and a dog named Harley. Rachel and her family are devoted to bringing autism awareness to the community and they are organizing the local Autism Speaks event in Burton this year.