Hope and Wall-E join the staff at two Laval schools

Asista service dogs are providing comfort to special needs students

Hope and Wall-E join the staff at two Laval schools
From the left, Laval Junior Academy interim-principal Eric Ruggi, Laval Junior Academy student Samantha Tardif and SWLSB chairman Paolo Galati are seen here with special needs service dog Wall-E.
Martin C. Barry

The outlook is positive for students with anxiety disorders and special needs at the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board’s Laval Junior Academy and Crestview Elementary School with the official arrival of two service dogs to provide comfort and focus in moments of stress and emotional need.

Laval-based Asista and the SWLSB, with the help of partner Nutrience pet foods, held a launch for the service dogs on May 27 at Laval Junior Academy, where one of the dogs has been providing assistance for the past two and a half years.

Service dogs

Facility dogs, trained in obedience and specialty cues, are used in work settings following training in specific techniques which enable the dogs to serve as a tool and a motivator, thus enhancing the accomplishment of goals.

Introduced to the gathering of school board, company and municipal officials were the two dogs: Hope the Labrador who will be stationed at Crestview Elementary, and Wall-E who will be gracing the halls at LJA.

Along with many other dogs trained by Asista, Hope and Wall-E will be doing their part to help the students in their daily activities at both schools.

‘Out of the box’ thinking

“At the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, we pride ourselves for thinking out of the box and finding innovative ways to ensure all our students succeed,” said SWLSB chairman Paolo Galati, while adding that as an educational organization the school board needed to adapt its ways to the growing student population.

“Autism, anxiety disorders and other mental health illnesses are on the rise and the goal of the Facility Service dog program is to provide an open, accessible environment for both students and adults,” said John Agionicolaitis, spokesperson and co-founder of the Asista Foundation.

Dogs helping students

According to LJA interim-principal Eric Ruggi, Wall-E’s role among the students is diverse. “He helps students in difficult situations, either social or educational,” he said. “His presence allows students a chance to interact in a controlled setting with an animal to overcome their fears and apprehensions. He visits classrooms to assist students with special challenges by helping them cope with their emotions.

“He will know if the tension in the room is rising,” continued Ruggi, “and will instinctively seek out students who are in distress. He helps prevent the escalation of a given situation. In a group setting where the dynamics can be difficult, Wall-E provides first a distraction, and finally a connection in order to ease tensions. Wall-E is part of our day to day school life.”

According to Ruggi, Asista is in the process of training a second service dog for Laval Junior Academy – a Golden Retriever named Enzo. “He already started last week and he will continue until the end of this school year and into the next year,” said Ruggi.

Hope and Wall-E join the staff at two Laval schools
Wall-E, left, and Hope are seen here in the auditorium at Laval Junior Academy during the SWLSB’s service dog program launch on May 27.

Helping reduce bullying

Experts in the training of service dogs say the dogs help to reduce bullying in the school community, increase school spirit and de-escalate high stress situations. Each service dog is medically insured to cover any accidents or illnesses that may occur. Each service dog is also vaccinated and cared for carefully to maintain proper health and hygiene.

LJA student Samantha Tardif said she benefited enormously from the presence of Wall-E. “I used to not really want to come to school – I used to have really major bad anxiety attacks,” she explained. “Without Wall-E or Asista, I don’t know what I would personally do, because there’s not that many foundations that would actually do what they do.”

Other Asista projects

In addition to its work with the SWLSB, Asista has also been working with the federal government to help veterans, while also helping develop standards for service dogs in Canada.

The non-profit organization’s mission is to provide service dogs for people who are dealing with mental health issues. The foundation’s primary goal is to maintain a therapeutic relationship between the individual and the dog to help them cope in difficult settings.

Asista says it is the only foundation in Quebec that exclusively offers certified service dogs for people with PTSD. Its vision is based on matching the right dog to the right person. Their dogs come from shelters and are selected based on their traits.

When the foundation was established in April 2012, Nutrience (produced by a subsidiary of the Montreal-based Hagen Inc.) became involved and has been sponsoring Asista ever since. According to Asista, the demand for their dogs is exceedingly high and is rising quickly.