For 14 years, my Bernese Mountain Dogs and I have been involved in animal-assisted therapy activities as part of the Marin Humane Society’s Special Human-Animal Relationships (SHARE) program. Together we attended senior residences, the intensive care unit of our local hospital, reading programs, classrooms for children with special needs and people engaged in humane education, programs for young people at risk and in need and the Marin Humane Society (MHS) summer camp. My youngest from Bern, Charlotte, has been part of the SHARE program for three years. She is a gentle soul who instantly connects with anyone, especially children, whom she loves.
In April 2012, Rachel Blackman – whose mother Darlene Blackman runs the MHS SHARE and Community Service programs – invited five SHARE teams (including Charlotte and I) to participate in a program she was developing for her Girl Scout Gold Award project would have. Inspired by one of her cousins who is autistic and attending MHS summer camps, she named it Jumping for Joy.
Jumping for Joy focuses on children with autism and learning disabilities and their families. The six-week program, which is offered free of charge to participants, gives children the opportunity to work on a dog agility course with trained animal-assisted therapy teams (AAT). Before and after the agility course work, children and dogs spend time together in the “Therapy” part of the program, in which each child receives security, unprejudiced acceptance and unconditional love from the dog teams.
In the first week, the children and their families meet, spend time with the dogs and watch demonstrations of the equipment used. The focus is on simple cues for each station. Weeks two through five are dedicated to helping the children navigate the jumps, hoops, tunnels, A-frame, and the table with the dogs. Each class includes a demonstration, practice on the course, and learning a new skill, as well as spending time with the dogs. To help the children, Rachel prepares laminated cue cards that show a dog on a specific device and the single word cue to use. The final session is attended by families and friends and includes demonstrations and exercises. Each child then leads a dog through the entire agility course and receives a special certificate and medal.