Puppy power

Therapy dogs help motivate kids with special needs to learn


Cam Wigton and Janice Neumann


Mattie isn’t your typical teacher’s aide. But Debbie Tomasik, a sixth-grade special education teacher at S.E. Gross Middle School in Brookfield, says her 5-year-old golden retriever is one of her most powerful teaching tools.

"My goal is to work with kids who might have behavior problems or be depressed," Tomasik says. "There is a real difference when I bring her to school. The kids really relax."

Mattie is a certified therapy dog, meaning she has been trained to work with people who have special needs in schools, hospitals or nursing homes. And she is one of a growing number of canines who work with school children who have special needs.

Mattie goes to class with Tomasik, who lives in Oak Forest, once or twice a month to spend the day with the students in her class and others in a fourth-grade class. Students who deserve a reward or who need a little more motivation might get the chance to help care for Mattie for the day or participate in a presentation Tomasik and her dog give to students on service and therapy dogs. The dog isn’t "teaching," but she still helps the kids learn, Tomasik says.

"We let the dog play with the kids and it gets rid of the aggression they have," she says.

Jennifer Ames, director of special education for School District 95 in Brookfield, says these teaching methods can be effective. She sees it.

"I think some of the students she works with need more understanding and more motivation to do well," says Ames. "They’re able to calm down more when Mattie is there. They just seem more centered. A number of individual students just blossomed because of her."

It worked that way for Brookfield residents Tyler Torres, 11, and his big brother, Nick, 15, both of whom have been in classes where Mattie served as teacher’s aide.

"Having the dog in class motivated me to learn better," says Nick.

"She’s really calm and nice," adds Tyler. "She comes by us when we’re working and we can pet her."

Their mom, Mary Busking, says Tyler was so excited about having Mattie in class that when he got home from school that day, the dog was all he wanted to talk about. "It just gives the kids so much pride to do this. Some children need that different environment in order to learn."

In addition to her work at Gross Middle School, Mattie travels once a year to visit the second-graders in Sandra Buller’s class at Brook Park Elementary in LaGrange Park.

During a recent visit, 25 excited second-graders gathered around to learn about Mattie and therapy dogs. They learned about Mattie’s red vest, covered with patches marking her qualifications and achievements. And they were wowed by Mattie’s tricks, which included bringing a tissue to a student who sneezed and afterward disposing of it in the trash can.

Such tricks are more than just fun for the kids to watch, Tomasik says. They help students focus, draw out youngsters who might be withdrawn and teach kids the value of animals.

Buller uses Mattie’s annual visits as a teaching tool. Before Mattie arrived, Buller read her class a story about therapy dogs and the important role they play. After Mattie’s visit, the children wrote about the experience.

"You can see that children who are normally very quiet and reserved, all of a sudden another personality comes out," says Buller. "They become very outgoing, very attentive. They have a big smile on their face. They’re absolutely thrilled and they come to life when Mattie comes to the classroom."

Outside the classroom, Mattie also works magic. She participates in a "Book Buddy" program in which students who may be too shy to read out loud read to the dog. And she helps children deal with the death of a loved one at The Heart Connection Program at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park. This summer, she visited the Jennifer S. Fallick Cancer Support Center in Homewood to help kids talk about what it is like having a family member with cancer.

"If the kids feel they want Mattie next to them to make it a little easier to talk, they can call her over," Tomasik says. "It’s easier for them to communicate with an animal there. It’s as if they were talking to the animal."

Cam Wigton is a writer living in Chicago. Janice Neuman is a writer living in Hyde Park.


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