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Abilities Through Agility
Program transcends the sport to improve kids' lives
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Blond fur flying gracefully, Lizzie the Golden Retriever leaps through the tire jump, scurries through the first tunnel and times her bar jump perfectly. Then, rounding the corner, she scampers past the second tunnel.

“Lizzie, this way!” directs her handler, circling her arm toward the tunnel entrance. Lizzie watches, wags and then seems to make a decision: she dashes gleefully toward the trees. Everyone on the course laughs.

Normally, this behavior on an agility course would earn major faults, but here, it’s all part of the fun—and the therapy.

Lizzie is a participant in Abilities Through Agility, a unique program that combines kids, therapy dogs and an agility course to help the children achieve their physical, occupational (focused on improving motor functions and everday activities/interactions) and speech-therapy goals.

 

The program began over a picnic table at the dog park, a brainstorm shared by Anne Bates, a physical therapist at ChildServe (childserve.org), the rehabilitative-services facility in Johnston, Iowa, where the program takes place, and Nicole Shumate, founder of Paws & Effect (paws-effect.org), a nonprofit that trains therapy and service dogs. Shumate, who had seen a television program that featured an autistic boy and his dog participating in agility trials, imagined starting a similar program. Bates agreed, but wondered, “Do we have to limit it to autism?”

In January 2007, they launched Abilities Through Agility (ATA) with just four children. Now, the program has grown to four sessions each week, serving kids with severe injuries as well as degenerative, developmental, chromosomal and other disorders.

With three children, three therapists, two to three dogs and their handlers, three rehab techs, and a few parents in attendance, the sessions are “exercises in controlled chaos,” according to Bates. “It’s structured, but that structure’s hidden underneath.” In this setting, agility obstacles mask sometimes mundane or frustrating therapy obstacles, and the dogs motivate the children to overcome them.

 

This session starts with setting up the jumps, which requires physical and occupational skills. Alex, a 14-year-old with purple- and blue-streaked hair, wheels the uprights down the sidewalk in her wheelchair. “You’ll have to use your muscles,” says her therapist.

“I left ’em at home, sorry!” calls Alex.

Alex, who has Ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T), a rare genetic neurodegenerative disease, doesn’t actually mind the difficult task of transporting and handing off the uprights. She’s motivated to set up so that she can direct a dog through the course. “Kids are more likely to do things for the dogs than probably anyone else,” says Alex’s father, Greg Champion.

“You don’t notice you are actually working as much,” adds Alex.

Part of the program consists of the participants simply keeping up with their four-legged therapists as they dash through the course. While some run alongside their dogs, Alex pushes herself down the sidewalk that cuts through the course. At one point, Finn, her Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier partner, scampers to the top of the dogwalk, then half-turns to check on Alex’s progress. Seeing her far behind, Finn freezes, and Alex shakes her head and laughs as she propels herself toward him.

When it’s Kylie’s turn to run with Finn, she must first unhook the leash from his collar—a difficult maneuver. Kylie, Finn’s handler and the therapist all lean toward his curly neck as Kylie releases the latch. Then, the normally quiet 10-year-old girl sends Finn through the tire triumphantly—“Jump, Finn!”—punctuating the command with a thrust of her arm.

The children’s physical cues, whether pointing or arm motions, help them progress toward, and sometimes showcase the achievement of, their occupational therapy goals, as does rewarding the dogs; working a treat from palm to fingertips increases dexterity. Petting the dogs, one of the simple joys of human/canine interaction, also promotes dexterousness.

The kids clearly demonstrate their speech therapy work through the commands that ring out in conjunction with the physical cues—“Jump! Tunnel! Up! This way!”—. “They have to speak loudly and with authority for the dogs to respond,” says Champion.

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