LORAIN — Deaf and severely hearing impaired students at General Johnnie Wilson Middle School use sign language to give Sawyer commands, but don’t need it to communicate their appreciation for the certified therapy dog.
Sawyer was greeted with smiles Wednesday in teacher Jane Lewis’ classroom.
Hugs and “high tens” — in which Sawyer stood on his hind legs and touched his front paws against the children’s outstretched palms — came later.
The visit was Sawyer’s second to the class as part of a new dog therapy program designed to improve students’ socialization skills. Therapy dogs have been used in the past in Lorain Schools to improve children’s reading skills and socialization but working with deaf children is new.
The program began last month. Sawyer is also working with autistic children at Longfellow Middle School.
The autistic children are encouraged to talk to Sawyer about their lives. He usually spends about two hours per week at each school. Sawyer also spends about 90 minutes every other week at Anchor Lodge Retirement Village, a Lorain nursing home where he works with hospice patients.
Tina Carey, Sawyer’s owner and handler, said it took her about two weeks to learn sign language for the four commands the deaf children give Sawyer. They are, come, stay, sit and lie down.
Sawyer — “He will work for food,” Carey said — was rewarded with treats by the seventh- and eighth-grade students from around Lorain County when he followed their commands.
Seventh-grader Maggie Gleason of Amherst was initially shy about giving commands but smiled after getting Sawyer to sit.
Students who have difficulty speaking because they can’t hear themselves were encouraged to verbally praise Sawyer for obeying them.
“Good boy,” eighth-grader Jullian Negron of Grafton told Sawyer.
Jullian quickly developed a good rapport with Sawyer. Despite not liking to have his hands licked, Jullian laughed when Sawyer licked his face at the end of the class.
“Jullian really has bloomed with this,” said Brenda Duerk, Wilson’s speech therapist.
There is no definitive proof that therapy dogs improve students reading and socialization skills. However, some studies suggest they can help. A study of nearly 200 kindergarten through fifth-grade California students who read to dogs between 2006-11 showed their reading levels and behavior improved, according to the International Reading Association, a nonprofit literacy group.
Canadian author and educator Lori Friesen, a researcher in animal-assisted literacy, said children who excel at reading can also improve through dog therapy. Dogs provide unconditional acceptance and championship and a relief from perfectionism, Friesen wrote in an article for the Latham Foundation, a California group that promotes animal-assisted literacy and the humane treatment of animals.
Duerk said the children’s interaction with Sawyer gives her things she can talk about with the children. Some don’t have many experiences outside the classroom they can discuss because of their deafness.
“Giving them something in the school really helps,” she said. “We have children who aren’t very social getting up to do something with the dog as opposed to just sitting with me and my group. Any experience creates better language skills.”
Carey said Sawyer, a German shepherd mix who turns 6 in July, also benefits by having someone else give him commands. Since she adopted him at five months old, Carey has been the only one to command him. At the first session with the children April 17, Sawyer looked to Carey when the children commanded him, but on Wednesday he regularly responded to their commands.
Carey, the 39-year-old owner of Total Canine Obedience Training in Lorain, said Sawyer is an unusual therapy dog. Most are laid back, but Sawyer is hyper. Carey told Sawyer’s life story to special education children in teacher Nancy Holchin’s class after working with the deaf children.
Carey and Sawyer volunteer with the Ohio Wing Civil Air Patrol, a branch of the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary. Sawyer became certified as a trained search-and-rescue dog in 2012. His acute sense of smell, discipline and tracking skills make him ideal for finding lost or injured people.
Sawyer has never taken part in an actual search, but Carey said he has been successful in highly realistic training exercises that he regularly participates in. She explained how searches are conducted as Sawyer roamed the classroom in his search-and-rescue vest, which includes a flashing light so that Carey and other searchers can easily spot him. Carey joked that she and Sawyer have an unhealthy relationship because they’re so close.
“We rely on one another 24/7,” she said. “We are partners just like the cops are.”
Carey said her son, now 14, had speech problems as a young boy that he has since overcome those. It motivated her to want to use Sawyer to help children and adults.
Carey, a certified obedience trainer and dog therapy trainer since 2006, said Sawyer has gifts that can’t be taught. Carey said Sawyer understands to be docile with elderly people, especially terminal patients. He is more upbeat with children and doesn’t bite when children occasionally get rough with him.
“He’s such a people person. I didn’t want to keep that from him,” she said. “I want him to make people as happy as he makes me.”