4-legged faculty member lends a helping ‘paw’ to students with learning challenges

Carol MacKenzie
November 30, 2019 - 6:00 am
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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — When you think about effective educational tools, a dog probably doesn't make your list.

But for kids who have learning or emotional challenges, a dog can be exactly what they need in school.

Paws and Affection, a Narberth-based nonprofit, trains service dogs to empower kids who have disabilities. Trainers spend two years teaching the dogs and getting them ready for placement, like 5-year-old Lab-poodle mix Kelly.

It's safe to say Kelly is paws down the most popular staff member at AIM Academy in Conshohocken, a school for kids with learning differences and special needs. 

Kelly has worked with AIM's speech and occupational therapists and guidance counselor for three years now, helping students reach their learning and therapeutic goals.

Since 2013, Paws and Affection has placed five dogs. Some are one-on-one companions or service dogs, but Kelly is the organization's first facility dog.

Paws and Affection Executive Director Laura O'Kane said they have to essentially teach the dogs not to act like, well, dogs. 

“Lying at my feet and not making any noise,” she noted as an example, “not reacting to things in your environment — that's very hard. Takes a lot of practice.”

After about a year of training, tasks become more specific, O'Kane said, like putting their heads on a kid’s lap to alleviate anxiety.

Fifth-grader Declan Head, who has learning challenges and anxiety, said playing with Kelly  helps him get through the day and puts a smile on his face.

“I like how she’s always there if I need her and how she makes me feel joyful,” added the 11-year-old. “She's always ready to help a student.”

A post shared by AIM's Facility Dog - Kelly (@kellyataim) on

Fourth-grader Max Pestronk, who has fairly severe ADHD, said he likes to play games like tic-tac-toe with Kelly.

“She puts her head or her paw on a piece and then it just flips on an X or O. That means it's my point. … Kelly beat me a lot of times,” he laughed. 

Max’s mom, Carrie, said Kelly is like a fidget spinner for him.

“He can play with (her) and pet (her) but have the ability to focus on the task at hand,” she explained. “It's been very helpful for him.”

A post shared by AIM's Facility Dog - Kelly (@kellyataim) on

AIM occupational therapist Amy Schwab, who works with the middle schoolers, said Kelly can help kids improve their hand-eye coordination, strength and memory. 

“I'll have (Kelly) point to three items in a certain order and then the student has to point to them in the same order,” she said. “If we're working on handwriting, Kelly will put her paws up on the desk and check someone's handwriting and give them tips if they need to make corrections. They love that.”

Kelly’s gentle demeanor and soft, black fur also creates a calming presence for the young students who struggle with anxiety.

Schwab and other AIM faculty go through extensive training to learn how to handle Kelly. They must be re-certified annually.

Overall, Kelly's unconditional love and affection gives these kids the motivation to tackle their challenges and the confidence to know they can. 

“And then I hear from the parents,” O'Kane added. “(They say), we were having a rough morning but said you get to see Kelly today, and suddenly the child was able to get on the bus and get to school. She's just a motivator, and it's fantastic.”