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Therapy dog helps firefighters connect with kids

Friday, February 1, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — Lofty ambitions for one dog, but very achievable, says Ron Harder, her handler.

Her name is Madison and she's the Rock Community Fire Protection District's specially trained therapy dog. She wears a blue vest and is a badged member of the department.

Getting the dog was Harder's idea, and the first time that Support Dogs Inc. has trained such a dog for a fire department.

Harder wanted a therapy dog to enhance the department's public outreach programs. Madison joined the department in November after completing her training, much of which came from female inmates at the federal prison in Greenville, Ill., coordinated by Support Dogs. The district only had to pay for kennels and supplies, which came to about $500, Harder said.

Madison, 2, lived at the prison. Now she lives with Harder, who takes her everywhere he can. He handles Rock Community's public education activities.

She goes to schools and nursing homes. She can stop, drop and roll to teach fire safety.

"She has such a calming effect on the kids," Harder said. "It has amazed me."

Last year, the St. Louis area got its first therapy dog for use in courtrooms to calm crime victims and help them speak about what happened to them.

St. Charles County is about to launch a similar program, said Bill Dahlkamp, executive director of Support Dogs, and prosecutors in Kansas City are interested as well.

But what Harder proposed was new ground for the group and required training the dog to play many roles that included bridging fear issues between children and adults, working with special-needs kids and making children more comfortable around grown-ups wearing uniforms, such as police officers and firefighters.

"I think this has great potential," said Rebecca Johnson, president of the International Association of Human Animal Interaction Organizations. "The fear of uniforms could be minimized by having a friendly dog present."

Dahlkamp said when Harder described what he wanted to do "it piqued our curiosity," and the group launched a pilot program centered around Madison.

Support Dogs uses mostly Labs, regarded as friendly dogs, sized well for people in wheelchairs and eager to work for praise.

"If the child can command them, of course the dog will do it," Dahlkamp said. "And they establish a bond."

Autistic children who won't talk to other people will sometimes chat on and on to a dog.

And Madison knows how to handle behavior that would scare most dogs.

"If they're screaming, she's fine," Dahlkamp said. "If they're beating on the desk, she's fine."

Neither happened on a visit last week to Simpson Elementary in Arnold. Madison visited a classroom of special-needs students ranging in age from 5 to 13. Many were autistic.

This classroom is one of her most frequent stops. She visits about twice a month.

The kids gathered around her on the floor, some excited, others more tentative.

"Madison will assume her position," Harder joked as the dog rolled onto her back in hopes of a belly rub.

Dominic Ernst, 5, smiled. He placed his hand on top of the hand of his teacher, Regina Bosler.

Together they petted Madison's face. Madison lay still before offering her paw for a handshake, which Dominic wasn't so sure about.

"It's OK," Bosler said. "She wants to shake your hand."

And Dominic shook her paw.

During the visit, Harder — who calls himself "Fireman Ron" — encouraged the kids to give Madison hugs. And he beamed when the kids interacted with her.

The children squealed in delight when she opened their classroom door by pulling a rope attached to the doorknob and clapped when she chased down a tennis ball, her tail wagging before the kids threw it.

"Can you please roll over?" asked Teddy Murray, 9. Madison was happy to oblige.

He had lots of questions, such as why Madison smelled the floor. That's how she learns, Harder said.

Teddy also wanted to know why her name is Madison. That's the name she had when the fire department got her, Harder answered.

And why does she have a badge? Teddy inquired. Because she's part of the department, Harder said.

"She has had an incredibly calming effect on the kids," Bosler said. She watched, surprised and happy, when a little girl who spent much of Madison's visit away from the group rocking back and forth slowly made her way toward the dog, smiling as she petted Madison.

"For her to do that," said Bosler, pausing briefly. "It was amazing."


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