No matter where Gracie goes, Frankie is always there.
Ten-year-old Gracie, who is developmentally disabled, relies on the 49-pound female miniature black Labrador retriever for just about every task. Frankie guides her wheelchair to the bus stop each morning, gets on the bus with her and joins her in the classroom at Roxboro Road Elementary School in the North Syracuse School District.
Frankie can open doors and drawers, and will nuzzle or lick Gracie to distract her from having a fit. If there’s something the dog can’t do, Gracie uses a touch-screen device that tells Frankie when it’s time to alert her parents.
“She’ll go to church with us, shopping—everywhere,” says Gracie’s mother, Bethany D’Alberto. “The only thing she doesn’t do is get into the bathtub with her. But you can bet she’s just a few inches away.”
Frankie is among several service or therapy animals that have helped Central New York children in a big way. Across the region, animals are being used to help children in many different capacities and settings: Dogs help autistic kids focus on learning or guide wheelchair-bound kids like Gracie. Riding horses at Arise at the Farm in Chittenango help kids with spinal or coordination problems.
The D’Alberto family needed an extraordinarily gifted dog because Gracie cannot give voice commands. The family began its quest for the perfect pet after meeting a service dog for autistic children, Jetta, at a Roxboro Elementary School career day. In 2010, D’Alberto contacted the Ohio-based 4 Paws for Ability to learn about the process. The family held fund-raisers to collect the $13,000 needed for the animal. Once the money was raised, Frankie received two weeks of intensive training and was ready to become Gracie’s full-time companion.
Frankie has been invaluable to Gracie and the family, D’Alberto says. No matter what Gracie does—even if she accidentally runs over Frankie’s paw with the wheelchair—the dog will never react in a negative way.
Frankie is “a best friend that will never turn her back on (Gracie) and never outgrow her,” D’Alberto says. “Socially, Gracie is now more confident when others are around her.”
Frankie’s work in the school has been “a learning experience for everyone,” D’Alberto adds. The students and faculty members, even though they all adore the dog, are only allowed to wave their pinkie at Frankie when she’s escorting Gracie to the classroom so the dog doesn’t get distracted.
“Pet her and she goes into puppy mode,” D’Alberto says, “but she won’t take her eye off Gracie.”
Frankie is not the only canine in the area who enjoys going into schools. Tara, a Shih Tzu, visits children of all ages with her owner, Sue Gilberti, co-founder of Pet Partners of Syracuse. But unlike Frankie, Tara does not serve one person; she’s a therapy pet who can interact with strangers and several individuals at once.
Tara began her career by visiting hospitalized adults. “Everyone she interacted with,” Gilberti says, “became a child for that moment. They can forget about their troubles. They bring love and peace to those they interact with.”
Gilberti and Tara, now 10, completed therapy-animal training mandated by the Delta Society National Service Dog Resource Center, for which Pet Partners is an affiliate. The owner and dog are evaluated together; certified handlers cannot use other people’s dogs. To pass the test, animals must prove that they would never jump up on someone, interfere with medical devices or walkers, or pick things—like pills or medicine—up off a floor.
Tara is trained to provide many benefits to children, especially. She can pay attention to a child who is reading a book aloud, helping increase a student’s confidence.
Tara has also worked with autistic children and those with Down syndrome. She distracts them from tantrums and helps calm them. Other Pet Partners participants have assisted in physical, occupational and speech therapy tasks. Pet Partners currently has about 40 members, Gilberti says.
“There isn’t one particular breed that’s better than another,” says Gilberti. “There are quite a few Labs, and a lot of mixed breeds. About five of them were rescue dogs. We work pretty closely with Helping Hounds (Dog Rescue) and Wanderers Rest (Humane Association).”
Bella Wrinkles, a 5-year-old pug owned by Lisa Sackett, participated in the Reading Fur Fun program in the West Genesee Central School District for children in kindergarten through third grade. It was coordinated by Sunshine Friends Inc., another local program that coordinates therapy pet visits to schools and hospitals. Bella was a regular visitor at the Syracuse Veterans Administration Medical Center at age 6 months and went on to complete six weeks of “basic training” for therapy dogs before she began working with kids. Sackett’s other pug, Dinkley, didn’t pass the training but still visits the VA Medical Center.
“The face of a pug, as soon as you see it, you have to smile,” Sackett says. “It’s very funny looking. If they start laughing, it’s a good thing. Little dogs are good because they can sit on your lap and they are not intimidating.”
Sackett added that Bella retired after being treated for cancer. Now that Bella has recovered, Sackett hopes to bring the dog out of retirement temporarily for one visit to the Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse.
Other types of animals can be used for therapy. At Arise at the Farm in Madison County, people of all abilities can horseback ride. The therapeutic riding program there is now in its 14th year and currently serves riders from ages 2 to 50. The disabled participants’ challenges include autism, epilepsy, cerebral palsy and various developmental disorders, says Nikki Dandignac, therapeutic riding instructor.
Most of the participants ride once a week during the warmer months, but there are several who come in the winter as well. One participant began the program as a child in 2000 and continues to ride as an adult. In all, 80 to 90 children participate in any given week.
“The horses mimic how a person walks,” Dandignac explains. “It helps with balance, endurance, strength. The horse’s hip movement can go side to side or forward. It becomes an extension of the rider.”
A horse’s stepping speed is based on the rider’s disability. For a rider who has difficulty sitting up, for example, the horse would move slower and take extra steps to engage all of the rider’s muscles.
“The nice thing about it is the kids don’t really know they’re doing therapy,” Dandignac says.
Andrew, a 6-year-old from Baldwinsville, tried riding at the age of 4. He did not enjoy it the first time around but tried riding again last year and fell in love with it, says his mother, Kristen Enright. The boy, who has cerebral palsy, uses a walker and hopes to develop enough strength to take steps on his own someday.
“He loves it. He rides a horse named Cooper, which is special to him because that’s the same (name) as his younger brother,” Enright says. “If the horse gallops a lot he just starts laughing. He thinks it’s so funny. But it does help his hips relax and aids in strengthening his core.”
Casey Wink says her daughter Emma, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, has been riding for six years now. The 10-year-old has made significant progress and continues the program with the goal of some day being able to move on her own with the help of a supportive walker.
Last year Emma began the 21-day challenge program at the start of the riding season, which ran from March through November. Participants ride every day for three weeks before settling into a once-a-week routine.
“Anything you do with your brain for that 21-day period helps set the tone for the rest of the season,” Wink says. “With Emma, the results were positive. She developed trunk control, head control. She was able to keep her head up for a long period of time.”
But the Winks are bracing themselves for new challenges this riding season. Emma is in a growth spurt and is expected to have a more difficult time controlling her body. But even if there are setbacks, riding—and sensing the warmth and movement of the horse—is very therapeutic regardless of the rider’s progress. And children also benefit from a psychological component of the program.
“She loves it. She loves her horseback riding aside from the fact that it’s therapy,” Wink says. “They (participants) learn that they really can do things that other kids can do.”
Aaron Gifford is an award-winning writer who lives in Cazenovia with his wife and two children.
Photos above: Michael Davis Photos