CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – A group of three young boys hold yoga poses and burst out in laughter as three dogs jump over them, duck under them, and weave in and out.
Next, the boys work together to construct an obstacle course for the dogs out of PVC pipes. They run alongside the course, cheering the dogs on as they jump over pipes and run through tunnels to find their treats.
This joyful scene is taking place during the new Agility Program at St. Luke’s Hospital this summer and provides crucial therapy for children with a variety of diagnoses.
St. Luke’s Witwer Children’s Therapy team ran the seven-week pilot program from May through June. It was so successful, they started the second round – this time for eight weeks – on July 25.
Marcia Simon’s 14-year-old son Ben has cerebral palsy and participated in the pilot program. She said the new therapy was beneficial for all involved.
“I was writing down some things for the evaluation (of the program), and I just wrote the word, ‘Joy,’” Simon said. “There’s joy here, and Ben looks forward to coming every Thursday evening.”
Physical therapist Keri Andrews said they started the program after seeing it in action in Des Moines.
Once a week, three kids, three therapy dogs, and the three dogs’ handlers meet for the agility program. The kids are also accompanied by a physical therapist, a speech therapist, and an occupational therapist.
The kids start by introducing themselves, their dog, and the handler. They take turns leading yoga positions before moving on to the obstacle course portion. Also, Occupational Therapist Cathy Laas said they work on fine motor skills by having the kids hook the dogs’ leashes, brush their fur, and take them on supervised walks.
The sessions help improve confidence and problem solving, as well as verbal, physical, and social skills. Speech therapist Amanda Starr said having all three therapy disciplines involved allows for each therapist to provide a different perspective.
Kids with a variety of diagnoses can benefit from the therapy, including those with cerebral palsy, autism, and Down syndrome.
As a physical therapist, Andrews she said she saw improvements right away from the dogs’ involvement.
“The greatest thing for me to see out of the yoga is that [the boys] are holding positions a lot longer than they would have,” she said.
Leslie Buscher’s therapy dog, a half golden retriever-half lab named Luke, participates in the program. Buscher and her husband Mike run One on One Dog Therapy and have two therapy dogs.
Buscher said they purposely train their dogs from puppies to work with children and be ready for the unpredictable nature of kids.
“One of the reasons why dogs work so well with kids is because dogs are not judgmental,” Buscher said. “When [kids] have had adults their whole lives telling them what to do and teachers telling them what to do, when you work with a dog, the dog isn’t asking anything from you.”
Chris Montross, Lead Volunteer for St. Luke’s Pet Pals program, said they work with 36 dog teams and two cat teams in a variety of programs at St. Luke’s. All of the pet teams are registered with the Washington-based organization Pet Partners, which tests obedience, temperament, and disposition.
“(Animals) take the focus of the patient off their situation, whatever that may be, and just allow them to have a nice interaction from an animal that gives unconditional love and that doesn’t demand anything in return,” she said.
Andrews says they hope to continue the agility program and are open to expanding the number of groups or classes in the future.
For Simon, the program brought her son confidence as he prepares to enter Kennedy High School in the fall.. During the course of therapy, he started to dress himself for the first time.
“Maybe he just felt more independent,” she said. “…My little boy likes to mumble, and they had to ask him to speak up. As he grows, I want him to be able to be heard.”