The smile never left the face of bubbly 3-year-old Anthony Bailey as he tossed a Frisbee to Simba, an autism assistance dog at Kidz Therapeze in Killeen.
Under the watchful eyes of Tammy Renaud, his occupational therapist, the two pals romped in the playroom from one activity to another. While the session was fun for them, it served a more important purpose of strengthening Anthony’s balance, coordination and communication and social skills.
“Autism assistance dogs are a new type of therapy and these animals are specially trained to provide emotional support for special needs children,” said Renaud, director of the Animal Assisted Therapy program. “Simba’s presence also gives Anthony a focal point and has a calming effect on him.”
Renaud began the program last year. She is an instructor and evaluator for the Pet Partners Program through Bocalan-Texas, a leader in animal-assisted therapy. Simba, a 6-year-old golden retriever mix, is one of three therapy dogs that are trained and handled by Chelsea Loafman. She also is a registered trainer with the Pet Partners Program and grew up training horses and then translated those training skills to dogs.
“The exercises are adjusted depending on the specific needs of the patient, but the child is engaged with the dog allowing the exercises to go to a fun new level,” Loafman said.
Throughout the session, Anthony and Simba interacted while playing a colorful board game and beanbag basketball. Once, when Simba returned a frisbee to Anthony, he squealed a loud “thank you.”
His mother, Ashley Bailey, wished she had gotten her son into the program sooner, because she’s thrilled with his progress.
“He’s grown by leaps and bounds, and the therapists with the dogs keep it fresh and exciting,” Bailey said.
Outside, Kenna Klajic, 5, climbed on the playground equipment with Simba by her side.
“Kenna is very animal-oriented and with Simba’s help, she’s learning some calming strategies to ease her panic attacks,” said Mychael Klajic, her mother.
The Klajic’s foster dog, Faith, is being trained as an autism assistance dog, so Kenna will have her own therapy dog at home.
Renaud said the impact these therapy dogs have on the family unit is amazing. “Families that once couldn’t go out to enjoy even a normal evening can now engage in typical family activities,” she said. “Everyone is having a better dynamic.”
For more information, call Renaud at 254-634-8505.