Jennifer Wise helps troubled students help themselves by having them train dogs for the disabled. It sounds like an awfully indirect way to teach responsibility, persistence, and patience to students with a history of emotional dysfunction and chronic truancy, but it works. Now in its sixth year, Wise’s Kids and Canines program at the Dorothy Thomas Exceptional Center in Tampa, Florida, is the kind of resource not often found in public schools. Along with “graduating” about 20 dogs to assist handicapped people and provide therapy, Wise has taught about 60 previously unreachable students how to overcome their own challenges by simulating those of others.
In Jennifer Wise’s special education class, dogs aren’t pets—they’re co-teachers.
“It’s a good program for me,” says 7th grader Tiffany Dunn, now in her second year with Kids and Canines. Tiffany and the other 18 students in Wise’s class spend their school days in wheelchairs, both to acclimate the dogs and to give the student-trainers a realistic feel for the obstacles disabled people must face. Tiffany says the experience has given her a sense of purpose: “There’s a reason for me to come to school now, and I am more patient with people than I was before.”
A special education teacher at Dorothy Thomas for 17 years, Wise built the program from scratch with a grant from the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice. Two student trainers are assigned to each dog, which is brought to the class when it’s about 8 weeks old. The puppies are then trained to perform certain commands; as they grow, so does the difficulty of the commands they must learn. “I treat the whole experience just like a job,” Wise says. “The kids have to interview, and they have certain responsibilities that they have to keep up with,” including dog grooming and general maintenance.
Tiffany and her fellow students have become more motivated and have developed new coping skills during the two-year program, according to Wise. Working with dogs, she says, somehow helps kids deal better with people— including themselves. “It’s not a quick fix,” she says. “But, with time, you start to see everything go up: self-esteem, confidence, grades, test scores, and their ability to interact with others.”