BERLIN – Many of the children at Cedar Chapel Special School have trouble communicating.
Some don’t speak. Others have trouble forming sentences.
So when Principal Belinda Gulyas heard one child ask distinctly, in a complete sentence, to pet the school’s therapy dog, she was blown away.
“It was kind of magical at that moment,” she said.
Murphy, a six-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog, is now a regular visitor at Cedar Chapel. All of the school’s students have been introduced to him and get to work with him throughout the year.
“They get so excited when they see him in the hall,” said Wendy Ryan, a speech pathologist at the school.
Murphy and his owner, Welton Seal, are part of Wicomico Wagsters, a volunteer therapy dog group. The duo also visits the Holly Center, Deer’s Head Hospital, Coastal Hospice and other area schools. They’ve logged more than 1,600 hours of visits.
Not surprisingly Murphy is quick to impress. At the “chin up” command, he will put his head in the lap of someone in a wheelchair. Ask him for a hug and he will carefully wrap a paw around your leg.
Seal says he spent years working with the 110-pound Murphy to make sure he would be careful on his visits to schools and hospitals.
“We focused on behavior that facilitates safety in a fragile population,” he said.
Because of that, at Cedar Chapel, students are able to do everything from walk Murphy around the classroom to use him as a pillow.
They are each given the chance to work on their communication skills by indicating what sort of activity they would like to do with Murphy. Some are eager to hold the leash and lead him around the room while others simply ask for a hug. They are all thrilled to see him though.
“It’s so exciting because we don’t see those big smiles all the time,” Ryan said.
Some of the students she expects to be afraid of the big dog are the ones who are quickest to be found lying on the floor with him.
Gulyas said what she particularly likes about the program is Seal’s interest in doing all that he can to help the students.
“He wanted to bring a service,” she said. “He was very adamant that it wasn’t just a dog coming to visit.”
Seal, who himself earned an animal-assisted therapy certificate, said he wants to make sure the kids get all they can from their time with Murphy.
“What we’ve aspired to do is move from the typical visits you associate with therapy dogs to intentional intervention,” he said.
Although Murphy has only been visiting the school since the spring, Ryan said she has already seen improvement in some students’ communication skills.
“We’re trying to work him into more lessons,” she said. “We’d love to have a Murphy as a part of our sensory room.”