When I discovered our special education class would help train Wilderwood Service Dogs, I was overjoyed we would receive the opportunity to assist in such a rewarding service for others. Because of my experience with a rescue dog after losing my father, I know first-hand the healing power a dog can have, but nothing prepared me for how important Wilderwood Service Dogs and Nicole Ballard’s visits would become in our students’ lives.
The transformative power of these service dogs on our students was truly remarkable. The presence of these dogs in our class positively improved our students socially, psychologically, and physically. Our students trained service dogs for the Public Access Test, which allowed our students to take on leadership roles as they taught commands to dogs. Shy and timid students gained confidence and self-esteem. In addition, some students took their knowledge of training to train their dogs at home. Working with service dogs encouraged our students to communicate more clearly and to feel comfortable socializing with others. For example, at a career fair on campus, our students were able to talk to strangers about training the dogs. On a final note, the students learned to be adaptable while working with the dogs. Once, our students practiced walking a dog with a cane because that dog would be placed in an environment where she would assist someone with a cane. Often, the dogs provided an opportunity for the students to learn how to use commands while working either independently or as a group.
The service dogs nourish the people who surround them. There have been times where our students who have physical limitations overcome their limitation because their love for the adogs motivating them. Our students feel safe and loved with these dogs. One student, who did not like dogs, has fallen completely in love with them and gives the biggest smiles while training the dogs. These dogs bring joy to all of our students and even have the power to change the demeanor of a student with anxiety to a state of complete happiness. These dogs offer students with an outlet for sensory relief and comfort. Our students feel proud of their work with the dogs, and it brings them joy to know they are helping train dogs that go on to improve the lives of others. For example, the knowledge that they helped train a dog for someone with agoraphobia-that person later was empowered to leave the house-brings our students a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
It is inspiring to think about the many lives Wilderwood Service Dogs have enrichened. It is a privilege and a blessing to be a part of the service dogs’ journey. It is a great gift to watch as our students grow and gain essential skills that help them become contributing members of society.