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Dog Days

Fox Lane's pet therapy program helps students



Douglas Foulke

Dogs are not just man’s best friend but also can be human’s best medicine. When the Sandy Hook tragedy occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, Dennis Gallagher, a volunteer from animal therapy organization Pet Partners, was asked to station himself at the local library with his dog, Gracie, a nine-year-old Collie. “There is so much pain, sadness, and tension in these situations,” explains Dennis. “And when Gracie shows up, the tone of the room changes. People can laugh, they can talk more easily.” Dennis and his dogs still regularly visit Newtown where they forged permanent bonds.

While a working therapy dog is often on call for special assignments during crises, these cherished pets usually have weekly “jobs,” too. Joy Copulos, a Bedford mother of three and founder of Magnolia Run Animal Rescue, regularly brings her therapy dog, Moon, who was trained by The Good Dog Foundation, to work with Fox Lane Middle School’s two adaptive physical education classes for students with Autism and other disabilities. 

“A lot of the kids in the program are sedentary, and it’s a challenge to keep them active,” explains Fox Lane teacher and coach Jeff Alviti who founded and runs the program. “They usually dread hiking, but when Moon is here, they forget they’re exercising. They just want to have a turn walking the dog. Joy made an ‘octopus leash’ that allows several kids to walk Moon together. He helps pull them up the hill, and gives them motivation to keep moving.”

Now in its sixth year, Fox Lane’s pet therapy program serves up to a dozen students each term. The pet owners volunteer their time to teach the children to interact with and care for the animals. While Copulos often supplements Moon’s visits with other trained animals from her farm, Anita Winkler’s two Border Collies, who live in Pound Ridge, are eagerly anticipated by the students, as well.

“Joy and Anita are great, and they’re consistent,” Alviti adds. “Routine is important for kids with these disabilities. If we tell them which pet is coming each day, they move faster to get here, and they stay engaged.”

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