Therapy dog will assist children with disabilities
Two O’Fallon businesses are giving a furry chocolate Valentine to a children’s therapy center.
A chocolate Labrador retriever will soon be scurrying through the halls of United Services for Children, a nonprofit pediatric therapy and early intervention center in St. Peters. The therapy dog, to be named in a public contest, will assist children with developmental disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome.
“This is a rare chance to make a difference in the lives of thousands of children for years to come,” said Dr. Marcy Hammerle, head veterinarian at The Pet Doctor animal clinic in O’Fallon.
Hammerle teamed up with Jessica Cooke, owner of The Yuppy Puppy pet spa in O’Fallon, to donate the 8-week-old puppy to United Services for Children. The two businesses, which share a building on Technology Drive, will share the expense of professionally training the dog—a two-year process that would be cost-prohibitive for the children’s agency. The Pet Doctor will provide free veterinary care. Yuppy Puppy will provide free grooming and boarding. Both businesses will donate food.
“This is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” Cook said. “The morale here is very high because of this puppy and what he is going to do to help kids. He will have such an impact on so many lives.”
Denise Liebel, president and CEO of United Services, said she is deeply grateful for the two business leaders’ generosity and commitment to children. She said everyone at the agency is excitedly awaiting the puppy’s first visit. But while the dog is adorable, it is definitely not a pet, she said.
“This therapy dog will perform a vital role in breaking through to children who, due to their disabilities, have become closed to the outside world,” she said. “It is critical that we reach these children. If we fail, they will pay the price the rest of their lives.”
Some children will not talk or make eye contact, let alone follow a therapist’s instructions, she said. They can become terrified by any change in their environment, or moving from one location to another. A therapy dog would be trained to calm these children and motivate them to open themselves to therapeutic intervention.
Children with less severe challenges would also see great benefit, she said. The dog would motivate children to strive harder during therapy sessions. It would help them process sensory input, including textures. It would apply gentle pressure to help calm children. It would help stabilize them as they learn to walk. The dog would encourage children to improve their physical movement, verbal and non-verbal communication, and social behavior.
Yuppy Puppy has a training department with professionally certified trainers. The puppy, specially bred for temperament, has already begun the training that will transform him into a therapy dog. Throughout the process, the puppy will make frequent visits to United Services, becoming acclimated to the children and the building. Once the training is complete, the dog will be assigned to a United Service staff member. It will work full-time at the agency during the day, Monday through Friday, and go home with the staff handler every night. The dog will return to Yuppy Puppy periodically to reinforce and maintain its training.
Founded in 1975, United Services provides therapy and early intervention to approximately 75 children weekly. It also provides support programs for parents and siblings. The center is located at 4140 Old Mill Parkway in St. Peters.
Hammerle said she has a personal connection to United Services because her 13-year-old son was a student there 11 years ago. Her son, who is on the autism spectrum, was non-verbal. At United Services, he received speech and language therapy, as well as occupational therapy. Hammerle said the therapy was very successful, and her son is doing well today.