TCFD canine-assisted intervention program Dogs and their handlers

(Pictured left to right: Erin Shuart, Heather Ackerman, Sarah Merrick, Amy Heiser, and Stephanie Parsons)

Since announcing the expansion of The Center’s Canine-Assisted Intervention Program, The Center has been patiently waiting and diligently planning the arrival of our four newest friends. Finally, the wait is over, the results of our naming poll are in, and our puppies have arrived at TCFD safe, sound, and enthusiastic to explore, learn, and play.

For almost four years, The Center’s Sarah Merrick has worked alongside her partner Leland, a highly trained Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) Golden Retriever/Labrador Retriever cross. Sarah and Leland work together in clinical and educational settings around The Center to encourage, motivate, and engage students and residents.

Now, with the help of TCFD students, residents, and clinicians, Sarah and Leland will be joined by three additional handlers and four expertly trained facility dogs to join the ranks of our Department of Animal Assisted Intervention and Education (AAIE) under the guidance of Sarah and Heather. Throughout their training, the puppies will have the opportunity to work with each handler before receiving their permanent team pairing. This rotating schedule is part of The Center’s new training curriculum and will allow for the best pairing of puppy and handler to match their professional roles.

Meet Sarah, Leland, and Millie

Sarah (MS, OTR/L) started working at The Center for Discovery in March 2014 as an Occupational Therapist, and in November 2016, she partnered with Canine Companions for Independence Facility Dog, Leland. Sarah and Leland work together to reach all of The Center’s locations and populations in partnership with our clinical team. In June 2019, Sarah became The Center’s Clinical Coordinator of Animal Assisted Intervention and Education. Sarah received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Marist College and her Masters of Science in Occupational Therapy from Sage Graduate School. She is currently a registered and licensed Occupational Therapist in New York. Sarah completed the Animal and Human Health Certificate program at the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection and the Karen Pryor Comprehensive Dog Trainer Program.

Additionally, Sarah received two weeks of on-site intensive training from Canine Companions for Independence. She’s hoping to see all the dogs help increase the participation and motivation of all individuals at TCFD.

Sarah with Dog Millie

Sarah with Dog Millie and Leland

Meet Amy and Hurley

Amy (MS, OTR/L, C/NDT) is an Occupational Therapist and been with The Center since 2014. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Canisius College and her Master of Science in Occupational Therapy from D’Youville College. Amy’s goal is to increase motivation in therapy sessions, assist students in learning social skills, improve communication, promote responsibility and vocational training, and have a positive effect on emotional regulation. She is looking forward to watching the puppies grow, learn, and evolve into facility dogs.

Amy with dog Hurley

Meet Stephanie and Sully

Stephanie (EdS, BCBA, LBA) has been with The Center for Discovery since 2016 and is a Behavior Analyst in the Adult Psychology Department. She is a Board Certified and New York State Licensed Behavior Analyst and achieved her Master’s in Drama Therapy from NYU as well as an Education Specialist Degree in Behavior Analysis from Bay Path University. Stephanie works across several campuses and houses. Stephanie is looking forward to training her facility dog, helping teach coping strategies, assisting with desensitization, and improving functional communication with the children and adults at The Center for Discovery. She is looking forward to welcoming her new puppy, but even more excited to watch the puppies train, learn and grow into their roles within our Animal Assisted Intervention and Education program.

Stephanie and Sully

Meet Erin and Monti

Erin (M.S. Ed) started at The Center for Discovery in 2003 as an Adapted Physical Education Assistant. Erin’s worked in both The Center’s education and residential programs and is now an Adapted Physical Education Teacher. Erin received her Master’s in Adapted Physical Education from SUNY Brockport in 2009. She hopes to see her facility dog provide a calming effect on students who have difficulties with busy and loud environments, which can sometimes occur during adapted physical education classes. She also hopes that her facility dog will help to motivate students to participate in adapted games as well as provide motivation during powered mobility training. Erin hopes to provide her student with opportunities to work on fine and gross motor skills outside of the traditional classroom by incorporating her facility dog. She is most looking forward to seeing how the program develops.

Meet Heather Ackerman

Heather (PATH Int. Certified Riding Instructor) is our Program Coordinator for the Department of Animal Assisted Intervention and Education. Heather’s worked at The Center for Discovery since October 2007 and began as an Outdoor Education Associate. From there, she evolved into a riding instructor and the Milligan Hill Facility Manager before starting her current role, Program Coordinator of Animal Assisted Intervention and Education. Heather is a registered riding instructor with PATH International and the Certified Horsemanship Association. She has recently completed the Karen Pryor Comprehensive Dog Trainer Program to support her role in the facility dog program. Heather works primarily at the Milligan Hill Equine Assisted Therapy Center, working with students and individuals from all areas of our program. Heather has always had dogs as part of her family since she was young. She has experience in training her pet dogs with local trainers and hopes that this experience will help to inform our program. Heather is fortunate to be working with all of the dogs entering the program as a trainer. She is eager to see each of their personalities and strengths develop as they mature. Heather is excited to expand her knowledge with dogs and observe as they assist students and residents in achieving their goals. She is also excited that we are developing our model for the new program to allow for endless possibilities.

Heather Ackerman