How dog program helps Northern Va. students meet their educational goal — one paw at a time

When Kris Campesi heads to the Key Center School in Fairfax County, Virginia, she brings a wide range of objects designed to appeal to students. But it’s her partner who gets the kids excited.

Micah, a Golden Retriever, is trained to work with students at the school who range from 5 to 22 years old and who have a range of special needs and intellectual disabilities.

Campesi is the director of Animal Assisted Intervention at Summit Therapy Animal Services and has been visiting the school with specially trained dogs for 11 years. Micah is the fourth dog to work with students at the school.

One of the first activities on a recent Friday morning, taking out giant foam dice and letting the students toss them so Micah can retrieve them.

It’s not just the physical exercise that helps the students. Campesi said for some of them, waiting patiently to take part in a game can be challenging. But, she said they find it easier to exercise patience with Micah, their furry partner.

Micah, a Golden Retriever, is trained to work with students at the Key Center School in Fairfax County who range from 5 to 22 years old and who have a range of special needs and intellectual disabilities. (WTOP / Kate Ryan)

“Micah takes a turn, they take a turn,” Campesi said.

While the game is fun, there’s an instructional element, too.

“We do some math work, where students are counting and doing numbers,” Campesi said.

Student Vincent DiBendetto eagerly took up the game with Micah, rolling the dice before Campesi called out: “Ooh, this one’s gonna be tight, Vinny.”

“Can I count the dots?” DiBendetto asked.

“Yes, count the dots!” Campesi replied.

When Micah took his turn, he rolled a five. When DiBendetto had taken his turn, he rolled a six.

“So, who has the most dots?” Campesi asked.

“I did!” DiBendetto said. Then, he added the two numbers together. “Eleven! Eleven … on a Friday,” he said.

Campesi said she likes working with Golden Retrievers in a school setting “because they’re a nice size, they’re not real breakable,” referring to their sturdy build. “They have to be very patient and tolerant of sounds,” and they need to be unflappable, both common traits in the breed.

Campesi said the soft, silky fur of a Golden Retriever is appealing to the students.

“We do a lot of sensory work,” Campesi said. Sometimes, students may not feel like participating in activities, but when Micah shows up, she said, “students are now motivated to move their hands in the dog’s fur.”

Ann Smith, principal of the Key Center School, talked about how the sessions with Campesi and Micah help students achieve the goals in their Individual Education Plans or IEPs. And the interaction helps in the students’ social and emotional well-being.

“He’s able to really relate to wherever you are emotionally or socially,” Smith said.

Smith also said Campesi’s skills as an instructor are evident in all the exercises she does with the students.

“The instructional piece is already there,” she said. “The art is what Kris does to modify and really work with the independent level of the student.”

As a team, Smith said Campesi and Micah can accomplish a lot in their visits.

“Students relate to both just beautifully,” Smith said.

Smith put the cost of the program at between $4,500 and $5,000 a year and said in the past, donations and fundraising helped cover the cost. The difference this year is federal ESSER funds were used to pay for the program.

“We love what we see from Micah and our students, and that’s why everyone’s invested,” she said.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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