Therapy dogs bring new tricks to Arvada middle school

By Peyton Garcia for The Denver Post

Simply getting through a day at school can be demanding for 8-year-old Sam Thompson — He has autism and a heart condition. His typical day looks a little different than his classmates’, with visits to a variety of therapists and an early departure from school each afternoon.

“A full day of school is pretty hard for Sam,” said Daniel Thompson, Sam’s father. “He doesn’t have the mental or physical stamina to make that happen. Having an abbreviated day is good for everybody — for Sam and the teachers.”

So, when special education teacher Denise Gillette learned about a program that pairs people with therapeutic companion animals, she immediately thought of Sam. The nonprofit Human-Animal Bond in Colorado, coordinated through Colorado State University, was created to “improve the quality of life for people of all ages through the therapeutic use of companion animals,” according to its website. The organization provides animal-assisted therapy services in partnership with public schools, hospitals, youth correctional facilities, the Veterans Administration and other programs and organizations throughout the Front Range.

Gillette wanted to see if bringing therapy dogs to Van Arsdale Elementary School, where she teaches, could benefit Sam.

Enter Mojo, the Portuguese water dog.

Mojo and Sam began spending about 20 minutes together once a week more than a year ago. Sam read to the dog, wrote stories about him and helped Mojo perform tricks.

“We worked on social skills and fine motor skills and sequencing — following directions with steps and orders — and just building confidence,” Gillette said of Sam’s initial months with Mojo.

Gillette considered the pairing a trial run, but soon enough she had four other students visiting with the dog.

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