Three-year-old Jaxtyn Lukus is sitting on the floor of his classroom at The Meyer Center with his teacher when two cuddly black puppies arrive.
The toddler’s face lights up and he immediately reaches out to pet one.
“Puh … puh … puppies,” he says excitedly. “Puh-pies.”
While the children don’t know it, the puppies help them develop their social and communications skills, said Candace Green, a teacher at the school for children with disabilities.
“Most of our kids here have a speech delay so a lot of times the puppies will encourage them to use their language because they’re so excited about them and get them to use words when normally they wouldn’t,” she said. “And it’s great for their social skills to be able to open up and interact with others.”
One little pig-tailed girl who’s about to turn 3, for instance, is shy and timid.
“When you talk to her, normally she puts her head down and closes her eyes,” Green said.
“But when the puppies come in, she jumps up and smiles, she babbles and she gets really excited about it,” she adds. “And she’ll ask for more puppies, whereas we can’t get her to communicate in another activity.”
The puppies take the children’s minds off their disabilities, allowing them to focus on physical activities as well, such as kneeling, she said.
“Puppies help you be in the moment,” said occupational therapist Julie Clark, who uses the puppies to work on color identification, and recognizing and counting body parts like ears and noses, and more with the children.
“They’re happier to do it for the puppy than for me,” she said with a chuckle.
Joyous and magical
The puppies are part of a pet therapy program offered by volunteers of the Greenville Humane Society. And they’re brought by volunteers Alexa Perry and Vicki Rubenstein of Greenville.
“I went in (to the humane society) to be a dog walker and they were talking about puppy therapy,” Perry said of the program’s origins three years ago.
“I said I’d like to try that. But they were only doing it in nursing homes,” she added. “So I said I’d like to try a children’s facility and The Meyer Center was the perfect match.”
“Alexa got me involved because she was looking for somebody to fill in when she wasn’t able to make it,” said Rubenstein. “I was a special ed teacher myself years ago and I love animals. So I jumped at the chance.”
Perry says that puppy therapy is “the most joyous experience I’ve ever had in my life,” while Rubenstein calls it “magical.”
Both women have backgrounds in special ed, and since they go to the school every week are considered honorary adjunct staff members, said Kim Pitman, executive director of the humane society.
There are 99 students enrolled at The Meyer Center, which was founded 62 years ago by Dr. Leslie Meyer, an orthopedic surgeon who believed that children with cerebral palsy ─ typically institutionalized or kept at home at the time ─ could be taught, said Shannon Spurrier, director of marketing and events at the school.
Eventually, the school expanded to serve children with all disabilities, such as Down syndrome, rare genetic conditions and unexplained disorders, she said.
Children up to age 6 get physical, speech and occupational therapy in addition to a specialized pre-school education.
“They receive all their therapies under one roof,” Spurrier said, “and have a team of therapists who work with their teachers to make sure they’re given that extra boost during that critical time of their lives.”
Some teachers were a little hesitant at first, wondering whether the puppies might be a problem or interfere with the routine, she said.
“But as we have come week after week providing a consistent therapy program,” she added, “the teachers, staff, students and parents are all so unanimously in favor of it that it’s become the crown jewel for the humane society in terms of what we do for pet therapy, and for The Meyer Center in how they teach their children.
“They are so great with the kids and with the puppies,” said Pitman. “It’s so much fun to see them and be a bright spot in their day.”
The humane society provides pet therapy at dozens of places in the community such as retirement centers, nursing homes, schools and hospitals, said Pitman. Some 300 volunteers staff that program, she said,
In addition to accepting surrendered pets, the humane society pulls dogs who are scheduled to be destroyed from shelters in four states, Pitman said. They are typically adopted in a couple of days to a week, she said.
The humane society just announced that it will break ground in June on a $2.1 million building that will have more room for veterinary services, Pitman said. Last year, she said, the group provided 25,000 vaccinations and 12,500 spay/neuters and adoptions.
As the puppies are taken from room to room, there are lots of ooohs and aaahs, from the staff as well as the students. There are smiles everywhere.
Jaxtyn, who suffers from a neurological disorder that affects vision, speech, balance and muscle tone, has been helped tremendously by puppy therapy, though at one time he was afraid of dogs, said his mother, Sonya Lukus of Simpsonville.
“This program has been amazing. It’s really good for the kids,” she said. “He really loves it. And he’s come a long way.”
As she picked Jaxtyn up to leave for a doctor visit, he turned to look at the dogs.
“Bye, puppies,” he said, waving. “Bye.”