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THERAPY DOGS: Helping Kids Learn New Skills

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Furry friends are lending a paw for kids in need.

A new program is using dogs to help kids learn to walk, play and live better lives through therapy.

Last year, Harper Stapleton was a normal, healthy one-year-old girl who loved playing with her dog, Stormy.

“She had a lot of energy, a wild child,” said William Stapleton, Harper’s father.

But just a few months later, Harper lost the ability to play, walk crawl and even hold up her head after suffering from a fever one night.

“In about nine hours, we just completely lost her,” he said.

Harper’s dad said she started having uncontrollable movements and seizures and her doctors didn’t know why.

“I miss her you know, she was my little bundle of joy,” he said.

Six months later, doctors believe a mystery virus may have caused her to lose function.  Whatever it was also caused her brain to shrink, leaving Harper severely disabled.

But the Stapletons said they found some light at the end of this dark tunnel, in a new program.  It’s helped Harper gain some movement back and more importantly, it’s bringing a smile to her face.

A therapy dog, trained to do therapies with children, will come in and participate in the physical therapy sessions, said Cherry Fisher of the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

It’s called animal-assisted therapy and the hope is that children will be motivated to work on motor skills when the see a dog.  For severely disabled kids like Harper, therapists will help her to reach out and pet the dog or have her kick a ball for the dog to fetch.

“Asking a child to play with a dog is a wonderful thing.  It’s something easy to integrate and as long as the children are enjoying themselves and having fun in their therapies, we find they reach their goals more readily,” Fisher said.

“When we first started using the dogs with Harper in therapy, it was a closeness goal.  It was to get Harper a little more comfortable, a little more relaxed.  I’ve seen her progress well, having a smile on her face and having her facial expressions change,” said Recreational Therapist Maggie D’Anna.

“One of the first reaching movements she ever made was with one of Miss Cherry’s dogs.  It was really a great movement for us to see her actually purposely reach for something,” said Stapleton.

Harper now works with dogs weekly and its animals like Lewis, a trained Chesapeake Bay retriever that help her.

Harper’s parents believe the program works so well because it brings her back to a happy place, memories of playing with her own pup, Stormy.

“It’s just an amazing moment.  There are no words that can be placed into how amazing that is,” Stapleton said.

The Kennedy Krieger Institute has six therapy dogs that they use to help all of their patients, like Harper.


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