I watched Bobby, a small boy with red hair and freckles face the wall and slowly make his way around the perimeter of the school’s multi-purpose room. His walk was uneven and jerky as he examined objects in the air, visible only to him. Bobby took great pains to avoid eye contact with anyone, but he stole quick glances over his shoulder to see what was going on.
Friendly therapy dogs with wagging tails and noses that kissed on command were being petted, brushed and walked by fellow students. The dogs and their trained handlers, myself included, had come to the James J. McBride Special Education Center in Los Angeles for their monthly visit. Everyone was having a great time.
Everyone but Bobby.
The school was filled with children who had a wide range of disabilities, from being autistic, like Bobby, to having cerebral palsy or Down syndrome. Even at McBride, where being different was the norm, Bobby was an outsider.
I watched as the nine-year-old made his way around the large room, separating himself from his peers, from the therapy dogs, his teachers and the volunteers. Was it by choice or habit? Did he want to join in? What was he thinking when he saw Mariella in her hot pink wheelchair, a wide smile on her face, walking Bosco, a spunky Beagle, on a long blue leash. Did he want to walk Bosco? What thoughts crossed his mind as he watched six-year-old Marta and seven-year-old Thomas brush a docile black lab named Virgil, who never flinched when the brushes missed their mark and raked his floppy ears or wet nose. Bobby glanced at Garbo, a snazzy, silver Schnauzer wearing a cool, Beverly Hills leather jacket, and he noticed his classmates getting pictures taken with their therapy-dog pals. Did Bobby want his picture taken? Bobby’s quick glances became lingering looks. As I watched this child from the corner of my eye, I thought I saw something. A longing to join in, but no way to get there. I went over to him with Bosco the beagle and held out the leash. “Hi, Bobby, would you like to walk this dog? His name is Bosco.” Bobby flinched in stiff defiance, turned away and said, “No!” I left him alone. So did everyone else. Maybe just being in the room was the best he could do.
I tried to involve Bobby again for several visits after that. He would come to the room and cautiously observe the therapy dogs in action. But he was far more comfortable sticking to the walls than sitting on the floor and petting a dog.
On our last visit for the school year, the multi-purpose room was brimming with happy children who had become so familiar with the therapy dogs that they asked to walk them, brush them, give them water and have their pictures taken together. Fears were overcome: Robbie, once hesitant to talk, told Virgil a secret. Grace, once afraid to touch any dog, gave each dog a hug. And Mariella was helped out of her wheel chair and into a walker to walk her favorite dog, a sandy colored pug named Dogtor Buddha.
My 14-year-old nephew, Nick, an experienced volunteer trained in animal-assisted therapy, came to school with Molly, a gorgeous Golden Retriever therapy dog, and me, for our last visit of the school year.
After the therapy dogs and volunteers spread out on the floor and the children came into the room, I spotted Bobby doing his perpetual dance around the perimeter of the room. The walls were his friends.
As Nick helped Thomas brush Molly’s nearly white, silky fur, a boy came up to me and sat down close beside me. It was Bobby. I welcomed him and touched his shoulder and he didn’t flinch. He picked up a book I had and asked me to read it to him. The short picture book was about puppies. I read it to him and he listened as he studied the illustrations and turned the pages at exactly the right moment. Then he asked me to read it again. And again.
Ten times was enough. I asked Bobby if he wanted to walk Molly. He thought about it, looked away, and answered “Cheese.” Nick knew what Bobby wanted. “Okay, Bobby, come here and I’ll take your picture with Molly.” Bobby got up and stood near Molly, not too close but close enough to be in the frame. Bobby held the Polaroid photo on the white edge and, as he watched it develop, a smile grew on his face. “You can take that picture home,” I told him.
It was tangible proof that progress shows up when we least expect it. Sometimes it just takes a little longer to develop.
The small boy with red hair and freckles carefully put the photo of Molly and himself in the front pocket of his shirt. He patted it to make sure it was safe. He looked around the room at the other dogs, the children, his teacher, and the volunteers. He was miles from any wall.
Written by Jacqueline Hirtz/Published in Whispers From Heaven 2/2002