How 4-legged friends are making an impact in Osceola schools

Jonah, a student, sits next to educational assistance dog Haven.

“Man’s best friend” has a new role in some Osceola County schools.

As part of an innovative educational program focused on the special needs of children with autism and developmental disabilities, EAD Osceola (Educational Assistance Dog) has tails wagging – literally. Currently, there are seven educational assistance dogs working in classrooms throughout Osceola County at the elementary, middle and high school levels. When these highly trained canines don their vests, they are on duty, ready to assist in the classroom and throughout the campus.

EAD Osceola was established by Crystal Nori-Gross, an ASD (autism spectrum disorder) teacher for grades 3-5 at St. Cloud Elementary School. One student, Logan, attended her class with his service dog, Belle. Nori-Gross noticed that Belle’s presence was positively influencing her entire class and wanted that positive impact to continue after Logan and Belle went on to middle school. She recorded data from her observations, then sought and was granted approval for a pilot program from the district office to have an educational assistance dog in her classroom for the following school year. Welch was the pilot program’s first dog and has since been joined by Annie and Haven at the elementary school. Nori-Gross has Haven in her classroom during school hours and at her home after school. She and her team members have made a commitment to the program both in and out of school. Each teacher and staff member assigned to one of the dogs must initially commit to 12 weeks of Saturday trainings to learn to work with the dogs in the classroom. EAD Osceola has partnered with the local nonprofit organization, Pawsitive Action Foundation, that trained Logan’s dog, Belle. The nonprofit breeds and trains dogs for veterans, first responders and children (www.pawsitiveaction.org). It has donated the dogs to the program and provides ongoing training for the handlers and the dogs. Nori-Gross said that everyone with a dog must become a certified handler with Pawsitive Action Foundation, Inc., and, must personally provide the dogs with food, shelter and veterinary care. The cost of the program is funded solely by the EAD Osceola team members and Pawsitive Action Foundation.

EAD Osceola has several components. The dogs provide emotional support, and more. They and their handlers are all participants in the academic “MUTT-I-GREE” curriculum, which has different levels for elementary, middle and high school students.

 “A lot of it deals with empathy, emotions, understanding basically how to express themselves with the help of a dog - being able to verbalize those emotions better,” said St. Cloud High School Vice-Principal, Jennifer Wrona.

At the elementary and middle school levels, a dog, such as Haven, will work with students in a self-contained classroom (where students remain with the same teacher throughout the school day). At the high school level, there is the Life Lab, which, said Wrona, is designed to teach all students with varying degrees of learning disabilities life skills such as cleaning, cooking and budgeting. Students age 18-22 may remain at the high school to participate in the Life Lab’s Transitions program to continue training to gain skills for employment and independent living. Publix grocery stores and Goodwill Industries employs some of the program’s graduates, and one former student is now employed at the high school as a custodian.     

 Murphy is on duty in the Life Lab at St. Cloud High School. Wrona observes that he seems to instinctively know who needs him, and uncannily understands students’ boundaries. He roams the Life Lab, serving each student as needed. He has been at the high school since March, after passing his initial training and testing. Wrona said that with continued training, their goal is to have all the school dogs certified as both therapy and service dogs.

On campus, Murphy’s training included exposure to the campus environment, learning to ignore the loud noises of fire drills and the thunderous noise of some 2,200 students crossing the courtyard during transition between classes. It took a bit of practice since he is only 11 months old, and the youngster of the group. But not even squirrels and lizards can distract him now when he is wearing his vest.

 “It is amazing how these dogs know when they are working and when they are not,” said Wrona. “When you see him (at school), he is very calm - and then you go home and it’s all puppy!”

“Pawsitive Pals” groups bring special education students and general education students together in the classroom. Nori-Gross will bring a group to her classroom this year, where general education students come to her classroom and work with her ASD students. She says, “They are going to come in, they are going to learn about the dog, they are going to learn empathy, working with children who have disabilities,” she said. My kids are going to teach them.”     

The teachers gather data focusing on behavior, communication, and attendance. In the classroom and throughout each campus, the teachers observe the many ways the dogs are positively impacting their students. They say the dogs seem to make the kids want to come to school. For some, absences have dropped dramatically. Dogs love unconditionally and are always happy to see the students. Edwin, a student of Nori-Gross at St. Cloud Elementary, says about Haven, “She’s a great puppy, and she makes me happy.”

“Children on the (autism) spectrum struggle with communication, so having the dogs helps to open up conversations on topics that are comfortable for the children,” said Nori-Gross.

She reflects on how Logan was able to communicate through his dog, Belle.

“It was amazing seeing the kids that weren’t speaking and were scared of dogs that became completely empathetic toward the dog, to other kids, they were talking with others, “ said Nori-Gross of the program’s success thus far.

Denise D’Amario, an ASD K-2 teacher at St. Cloud elementary School, shares her observation of one child’s transformation during the program.

“His personality changed. He was smiling. He never smiled; he never smiled! He completely changed; and it was all about the dog,” she said.