if you find one true friend

Through In-stride Therapeutic Riding, Luba Haser, 13, adopted at age 7 from Russia, has learned to trust people and communicate better. Her favorite horse is “Cowboy.”

Children respond to these special friends—to their approving gazes and their tolerant, unwavering attentiveness.  During and even after visits with these friends, kids beam with joy and seem more engaged in learning, achievement and self-improvement.

These friends connect physically, emotionally and intellectually with humans–yet, they’re not human.  They’ve got four legs, fur and a lot of heart.

Heidi, a miniature  Schnauzer, is a therapy dog who works with Tail Waggin’ Tutors, providing a relaxed learning environment for children working on reading skills.
Heidi, a miniature Schnauzer, is a therapy dog who works with Tail Waggin’ Tutors, providing a relaxed learning environment for children working on reading skills.

First, meet Heidi, a 6-year-old, 13-pound mini-Schnauzer with a close-cropped salt and pepper coat and a longer well-groomed beard.  For the past four years, this pooch has worked as a certified therapeutic dog, helping appreciative adults and as part of the Tail Waggin’ Tutor program sponsored by Therapy Dogs International.  In this starring role, she has become quite the kid comrade.

Her adoptive mother and handler, Rhea Hass, a long time Mt. Lebanon resident, takes Heidi once a month to Mt. Lebanon Children’s Library to read with pre-school and grade school children.  She and Heidi also regularly visit St. Anne’s School.

“Heidi simply listens,” says Rhea. “She looks at the kids with serenity and approval; they’re happy to be reading out loud and in her company.”

On a Thursday morning, brothers Ian, fourth grade, and Ty, first grade, smile as they enter the library and see a red-scarfed Heidi. Heidi and Rhea wait on a pink and brown “Diva” inscribed blanket while the boys pick out their books.  Today the boys choose books about dogs.

They’re glad Heidi’s here: They eagerly pet her, leaning closely into her, almost fully hugging her.  Heidi gives them a sniff or two, and they’re off to reading.  Taking turns, both read aloud with smoothness and accuracy, pausing from time to time to pet the pooch.

Tail Waggin’ Tutors aims to help each child develop and improve reading skills through comfort and encouragement.  “Heidi doesn’t care if a child mispronounces a word.  She doesn’t laugh at mistakes.  She doesn’t judge,” says Rhea.

Heidi’s listening skills seem to benefit all levels of readers from beginner to accelerated, Hass says, an observation that a recent study from the University of California supports. The study found that school-aged children who consistently read aloud to therapy dogs improved their reading skills by 12 percent over a 10-week period, as compared to those without the assistance of the dogs.

In an online interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Francine Alexander, chief academic officer at Scholastic, the children’s book publisher, accounts for this learning marvel:  “Kids have to practice, practice, practice to be good readers…yet when you’re practicing, if you make a mistake, it can feel risky and uncomfortable. But if you’re practicing with a dog, you don’t mind making the mistake.”

Heidi’s work isn’t entirely selfless. “Heidi appreciates a pat, a sniff, and some kind words,” says Hass. In return for their affections, Heidi is more than happy to give the kids her undivided attention as they read…and read…and read…

We’ve sung the praises of man’s—rather children’s—best friend.  Let’s turn our attention to another animal friend who connects with kids:  An odd-toed mammal described by famous breeder Federico Tesio as one who “gallops with his lungs, perseveres with his heart, and wins with his character.”  Yes, it’s a horse.  Meet India, Webe, Ginger, and Cowboy, horses that have won a number of Mt. Lebanon children’s hearts with their gentle, affable natures.

Like Heidi, these horses work in a therapeutic capacity.  They’re part of In-Stride with Therapeutic Riding, a South Hills-based nonprofit program that offers recreational horseback riding and activities to adults and children with disabilities, providing healing and restorative benefits.  A half-hour lesson costs $35. The program is staffed by volunteers and aided by donations.

Equine-assisted activities—riding, horsemanship skills, grooming, and cleaning—are known to benefit people with mental or physical challenges.  No matter the disability, therapeutic riding seems to promote physical, psychological, social, and intellectual well being.

In-Stride with Therapeutic Riding’s program director, Dana Flaherty,  is certified  in equine assisted learning and equine assisted psychotherapy through the O.K. Corral.  She is proud of the growing program, which serves 27 students with special needs and turns no one away. Many of her regular riders are children with autism, depression, learning difficulties, social issues, mental retardation or cerebral palsy.

The students look forward to their regular visits to the In-Stride Therapy Barn in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania. They form strong connections with the horses and vice versa, Flaherty says:  “The horses don’t care about what disabilities the children have or don’t have. They don’t care about what abilities the children have or don’t have. The horses enjoy the attention, and the children are free to benefit from the horses and the environment.”

Sabrina Filipek Don and India. Sabrina is now a volunteer at the In-Stride barn in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania.
Sabrina Filipek Don and India. Sabrina is now a volunteer at the In-Stride barn in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania.

Doreen Ciletti and her daughter, Sabrina Filipek Don, 19, both from Mt. Lebanon, sing the praises of In-Stride. Diagnosed with high functioning autism and needing an outlet for personal expression and stress relief, Sabrina finds comfort, pride and enjoyment by riding and caring for her blue roan buddy, India.

Over the past four years, Sabrina and India have worked together several times a week.  “The two feed off of each other,” Doreen says.  “India gets Sabrina.  He’ll adjust to Sabrina’s needs—whether she’s grooming, tacking or riding in the arena.  India follows her lead.”

“Oh my,” Doreen exclaims when asked about the associated therapeutic benefits.  “Since caring for and riding India, Sabrina has so much more self-awareness, focus and problem solving skills.  She also has a strong sense of accomplishment. Hey, if you can handle and adjust to a 150-pound horse like she does, you’re going to feel confident and more aware.”

Thanks in large part to her faithful four-legged friend’s support, Sabrina relies less on aides in school, Doreen says: “She’ll now start her homework on her own.  She feels less anxious.  She even communicates better!”

Sabrina now volunteers at In-Stride to help others learn and appreciate equine-assisted activities.

Ella Smith and Webe.
Ella Smith and Webe.

Like Sabrina, 14-year-old Ella Smith, also from Mt. Lebanon, cherishes her friendship with Webe, an older dun. Her mother, Julie, is thrilled with Ella’s experience at the In-Stride barn. Diagnosed with autism, ADHD and a learning disability, Ella seems to “come alive,” says her mother, when she’s with her “cuddly” friend, as Ella describes Webe.

When Ella arrives at the barn for her weekly visit, she eagerly runs to Webe and stands in front of her.  Instinctively, the horse lowers her head to enable the ensuing hug.

Julie praises the In-Stride barn as a place that generates positive feelings: “You can tell Ella feels confident when she maneuvers Webe.  She’s happy when she’s here and much more talkative when she rides. Our kids struggle with so many things—it’s great to see them succeed so much. There’s no failure here.”

Since befriending Webe four years ago, Julie says Ella has improved in following directions, mood, confidence, verbal expression and core strength.  Julie adds with a laugh, “She could learn anything by sitting on that horse.”

Marcia Pratt of Mt. Lebanon smiles as she describes the two-year friendship between her 9-year-old daughter, Bella, and Ginger, a smaller, gray horse. Bella, who has ADHD and learning disabilities, adoringly calls her experience “Gingerback riding.”

Bella Flatt and Ginger.
Bella Flatt and Ginger.

“Bella—who is all horse, horse, horse—gets to do what she loves,” says Marcia. “Did I mention that she wants to be a ‘horse helper’ when she grows up?”

Bella “feels no judgment, no pressure and she’s not graded on this,” says Marcia.  Now open to pushing her limits, Bella is learning gymnastics, called “vaulting,” on horseback. Ginger—by the way, blind in one eye— doesn’t seem to mind.  Heck, Ginger is so comfortable with Bella that he has allowed her to ride while holding a barn kitten!

Bella’s trust and love in her equestrian buddy translates into a strong sense of self, Marcia says: “This makes her better, and when she’s in a better place, we [the family] all are.”

Luba Haser, 13, also has achieved newfound confidence through her year and a half long tenure with In-Stride.  Adopted at age 7 from Russia, Luba and her family sought out In-Stride as a warm, safe place to find serenity and develop friendships.  Luba’s mom, Shelly, is delighted with this healing equine experience and Luba’s relationship with the spirited Cowboy.

This big brown horse has a reputation of being somewhat, well, moody—but not with Luba. “Not everyone can handle Cowboy,” Shelly says, “but Luba understands him; she sees parallels in their lives.
“They both have rough days.  Luba feels for him and doesn’t get deterred.  In return, he gravitates toward her and gives her unconditional affection.”

Luba and Cowboy seem to feel safe together, Shelly says, and this bond has helped the “sweet and blossoming” Luba to trust and to better connect with other people—a “true gift.”

Like Heidi the mini-Schnauzer, India, Webe, Ginger, and Cowboy faithfully serve their human friends in ways that perhaps humans can’t.  Although trained and certified to provide therapeutic benefits, these animals seem to have special gifts that can’t be taught or fully explained.

As author, George Eliot, put it, “Animals are such agreeable friends—they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms.”  More than a hundred years later, philosopher Alfred Montapert agreed:  “Animals are reliable, many full of love, true in their affections, predictable in their actions, grateful and loyal. Difficult standards for people to live up to.”

As the adage goes, “If you find one true friend, you’re lucky.”  And lucky these children are.

therapy animal resources

In-Stride with Therapeutic Riding, 637 Valley View Road, Eighty-Four, PA 15330 is accepting new students. Ground sessions are available for those unable to ride; In-Stride is now part of Horses4Heroes, which provides equine related activities offered to servicemen/women and their families; www.instridetherapeuticride.org

Therapy Dogs International, Pittsburgh Chapter 207, offers therapeutic visits:  Tail Waggin’ Tutors, assisted living, disaster stress relief, private home, hospice, hospitals, nursing homes, shelters and wherever therapy dogs are needed; www.tdi-dog.org

Tail Waggin’ Tutors Therapy Dog Visits, Mt. Lebanon Children’s Library, first Thursday of each month, 7 to 8 pm; register beforehand with the children’s librarian for “individual tutoring.”  412-531-1912.

Photography by John Altdorfer, Katelynn Metz