Shelley Mamott, Staff Writer
To a young boy in Susan Erisman’s autism class, the feel of a dog’s nose is simply fascinating. He runs his hands over it, sometimes covering it completely until he’s reminded that the dog can’t breathe that way.
And the dog didn’t mind at all, after all that is what she was trained to do.
Bella, a black Labrador retriever certified as a therapy dog this summer, works at schools and nursing homes. Every Wednesday, Jim McQuinn brings her to Erisman’s class at Seth Whitman Elementary in Belvidere, so children can touch, hug and explore her.
“My (students), who have autism, love the feel of her,” Erisman said. “There are so many sensory things about a dog. They love to hug her and squeeze on her.”
There are about 19 students all together, ages 5 to 10, who spend time with Bella. They learn about caring for and training a dog, as well as learning to socialize.
“The major drive in our class is to form communication and language skills,” Erisman said. “This is a time when they are not doing academics, but are learning to talk to Jim, who is someone new. They have really taken to Jim. He’s a very kind and patient man.”
So far, Bella has visited the students six times, and many children have come out of their shells.
“Some were afraid of her. She’s about 70 pounds,” McQuinn said. “You would be surprised in the change in the six times we’ve been here. Now, 95 percent of the class is right up there, touching her.”
For McQuinn, a retired business owner, bringing Bella to the school is a way of giving back and he really enjoys it.
“I love the kids and I love the dog,” he said. “I love giving back to the community, and this is one asset I have that I can share.”
McQuinn has three Labs but was struck by Bella’s tame demeanor. “More and more of my friends, including my ex-wife, said Bella is so sweet, she should be a therapy dog,” he said.
As a result, McQuinn researched the possibility of turning Bella into a therapy dog. He took Bella into the backyard with a list of criteria. They need to be able to walk past food without touching it, to walk past other dogs without reacting, can’t shy away from medical equipment or be intimidated by loud noises.
The list was filled with “things that are stressful to a lot of dogs,” McQuinn said. But Bella “didn’t miss a step. This is a special dog.”
Erisman praises the use of animals with autistic children for the way it helps them learn and also teaches them to develop a relationship with an animal.
“This is a sensory event for my kids,” she said. “But it’s also about building a relationship with another living thing and learning to care for it.”