Middletown CT animal ambassadors aid student with emotional challenges

Middletown CT animal ambassadors aid student with emotional challenges

But Devyn Jones, a sophomore in Middletown High School’s agriculture program, and animal handler in an innovative offering that provides therapy to students with emotional challenges, has learned that her dog Lucy speaks through hearing.

Jones said the human handler needs to communicate with the animal and, importantly, understand what it needs at any moment. “You two are a team, and you have to be there for them,” she said. “So I learned that Lucy expresses herself through her ears.” 

Jones and Lucy have helped a number of special education students since they received certification in April through the school’s animal ambassador program, which offers a trifecta of benefits. The goal is for the animal, trained student handler, and students who get to experience the unique love that only animals can provide, to receive an emotional boost to their well-being. 

Amanda Thomson, a 21-year veteran teacher in the high school’s agriculture program who also serves as the Future Farmers of America advisor, came up with the idea for the program intended to provide therapeutic support to teens facing emotional challenges, including special education students.

It started after she became a volunteer herself in an animal therapy program run by an organization called Pet Partners that brings therapy animals to daycare centers, libraries and summer reading programs. “A light bulb went off, and I realized I might be able to share that with my students,” Thomson said. 

She secured a $3,000 grant from the national FFA beginning in 2017 and every year since to offer the program that will help 18 students this year. Thomson hopes the funding continues next year.

The high school agriculture program serves about 120 students per year and provides a pool of handlers for the animal ambassadors program. Thomson stressed that the handlers are carefully screened, trained and certified and that the team is closely evaluated for suitability to work with students who need special support.

Their credentials must be renewed every two years. “The kids and the animals go through a lot of training and evaluation,” she said.

Rabbits, guinea pigs, dogs, cats and a miniature horse are all used in the program, she added. They have been used in several ways to interact with the students, including attaching them to wheelchairs, allowing youth to “walk” the animal.

Special education teachers even have their students read to the animals, Thomson said. “Overwhelmingly, the research shows it improves reading scores and fluency.” 

It also builds relationships between students who need help and the student handlers, she said. 

Thomson recounted one nonverbal student that uses a wheelchair who participated in the program. “One day in the hall, the student recognized the animal handler and gave her a hug,” she said. “It moved my student to tears just knowing she could have such a big impact.”

Thomson said the student handlers “need to know the animals really well, advocate for them, and make sure it is a positive experience for everybody.”

Benefits include stress relief. “Animals quietly appreciate and accept our company,” she said. “They are so non-judgmental, and they mirror our emotions. They are a calming presence. They are good for us.

“So, to be able to share that animals can help us is incredibly rewarding,” Thomson added.

Jones also owns a horse. “I’d like to be an equine vet,” she said. “They’ve been a part of my life since I was 5, and I want to continue that.”

While she loves horses, Jones knows Lucy, a 5-year-old Australian Shepherd, is very special. “She’s always had a loving, comforting personality. She’s the sweetest dog I’ve ever known.”

Her loving nature makes Lucy a powerful force for good. “The kids are so sweet,” Jones said. “Watching them tear up — they get so happy and comfortable, so calm and relaxed. It is a nice feeling to see people who can’t express their emotions all the time.”

She recalled how one student with Down Syndrome was struck by her visit with Lucy. “Her whole face lit up. She was so happy,” Jones said. “She has trouble speaking and saying words, but she kept saying ‘Lucy, Lucy’ while brushing her and giving her some treats. You can tell she was really loving it.”

Jones has benefited from the experience as well. “It also made a big impact on my life,” she said, adding that she is better able to communicate with Lucy and other animals, and the program will help her work with people with disabilities later in life.

“You have to learn those small things that show you what the animal needs,” she said. 

Jones also agreed with Thomson that these students become better learners through the program. “The special ed kids get motivation and encouragement,” she said. “It helps them focus on work and calms down their stress.”

For information, visit Middletown Agricultural Science & Technology on Facebook.



Middletown CT animal ambassadors aid student with emotional challenges

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