In a collaboration, the Animal Assisted Intervention and Education (AAIE) program at The Center for Discovery has joined forces with Catskill Animal Rescue (CARE) to elevate their animal-assisted therapy initiative. This unique partnership introduces rescued puppies and dogs into the program, aiming to benefit individuals at The Center for Discovery facing complex conditions, including autism.

Animal-assisted therapy, a well-established practice known for fostering independence and developing social communication skills, has taken an innovative turn at The Center for Discovery.

The journey began in 2020 when a group of puppies was brought to the center for on-site training to fulfill the need for exposure to different dogs, especially those with diverse appearances and personalities.

Scout, a Beagle Russell Terrier, is a recent success of this collaboration, poised to graduate into an advanced therapy dog role.

Sarah Merrick, an Occupational Therapist at The Center for Discovery, said the program with the rescue dogs initially focused on handler attention and distraction management. Progressing from basic cues like sits and downs, the dogs were gradually exposed to more complex cues in distracting environments.

Merrick emphasized the importance of selecting dogs based on sociability, person focus, toy or food drive, and energy level. As a Beagle Russell Terrier, Scout defied expectations with his high energy yet balanced temperament, showcasing the potential of rescue dogs in such roles. “He’s got to be housebroken and have all the basic behaviors and be non-aggressive,” said Merrick.

“We brought him in on the principle of trying this dog; we didn’t know if he would be the great fit, but we tested them out for the first few months and worked with the rescue. Even if they don’t fit our program, they would go back to the rescue or a foster with a much higher level of skill set and more adoptable behaviors,” added Merrick.

A typical day for Scout, Merrick said as Scout’s handler, involves working closely with Scout throughout the day. Her role within the program involves partnering with clinicians who do not have their own therapy dog. For instance, when a physical therapist requires assistance with a student focusing on improving gait and walking speed, they may request Merrick to bring in Scout. 

In these sessions, Merrick uses a primary leash connected to herself and provides a secondary leash to the student or adult participating. Setting the pace, Merrick and Scout work together, creating a coordinated therapeutic experience for the participant.

Merrick added, “I want the animal to be enjoying what they’re doing. So I don’t ever want to force a dog into a role where I don’t feel like they’re enjoying where they are or what they’re doing.”

Merrick says that this program can be a model for other organizations to follow and wants to make sure that the animals under the center’s care are honored for who they are.

Merrick said, “Allowing them to express themselves as individual animals.

For the full article on the Sullivan County Democrat

Tune into the Podcast on Radio Catskill