Canine lifelines for children

Canine lifelines for children
Project Chance Service Dogs Founder & Trainer B.J. Szwedzinski and her daughter, NFSSE teacher Nikki Szwedzinski with her Project Chance service dog ZenBowie and puppies-in-training.

When the hundred-pound golden retriever quietly pads onto campus and through the entrance of North Florida School of Special Education (NFSSE), everyday activities halt, replaced by excited student squeals and beaming teacher smiles.  Most rush to greet, kneel to pet or hug the calm dog with the friendly eyes, tail constantly wagging. 

ZenBowie’s chill arrival with special education teacher Nikki Szwedzinski of Riverside, wearing his own paw print identification badge, is a game-changer for these students with development or intellectual differences. ZenBowie, 7, is the youngest therapist on staff and the only one whose employment contract guarantees a full salary in dog biscuits.

“ZenBowie’s presence helps kids with challenges like autism, to relax and be able to walk into the school and their classroom. During the school day, if a student feels overwhelmed or upset, sitting with a service dog, talking to it, petting or walking the dog outside, can ease feelings of anxiety and completely change the mood back to positive,” Szwedzinski said. “Sometimes when a teacher or parent cannot reach a child, the dog can.” Szwedzinski is a service and therapy dog handler and trainer. She is also the daughter of B.J. Szwedzinski, an expert dog trainer since 1976.

B.J. Szwedzinski nearly became a special education teacher herself, but life circumstances interrupted completion of her graduate degree. Instead she turned her deep rapport with dogs and her skills in canine obedience and behavioral training into an in-demand career. In 2008 she founded Project Chance (Canines Helping Anyone Needing Encouragement & Empowerment), fulfilling her goal to help the local community and support mental health. The non-profit organization trains service and therapy dogs, like ZenBowie, for Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia recipients. 

Important differences distinguish service and therapy dogs.  A service dog is an extensively trained working dog required by a person because of a disability. Service dogs learn specific tasks to help with functions of everyday life or work.  As stated in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Titles II and III, service dogs qualify for federally mandated access to public places. 

NFSSE students including Presley Harvey, right, with ZenBowie during PE class.
NFSSE students including Presley Harvey, right, with ZenBowie during PE class.

Service dogs act as the eyes and ears of a disabled person and may perform a variety of jobs including medical alert during an event such as a seizure or diabetic low blood sugar, protection during a medical emergency, tactile stimulation during panic attacks or PTSD episodes, physical stabilization or block from danger (prevent a child from wandering), alert to danger or to the deaf as to someone approaching from behind, retrieve personal items or medication, contact emergency services, open and close doors, plus many more assistance skills.

Therapy dogs are not trained to perform specific tasks for a disabled person, although they must also be obedient and have a calm temperament. They provide comfort, companionship and affection to people in therapeutic situations or institutions.

During a visit to the Arlington campus of NFSSE prior to its temporary closure due to the COVID-19 emergency, B.J., Nikki and ZenBowie introduced several puppies-in-training. Both women are dedicated to training service dogs for children who may not feel at ease or comfortable interacting at school or in public. 

Nikki Szwedzinski enjoyed a high-profile career as a trainer in the electronics industry prior to moving home to Jacksonville for a drastic career change. She completed her master’s degree to become a special education teacher of students with developmental or intellectual differences, autism, Down syndrome, mental health issues or traumatic brain injuries. She couldn’t be happier with her decision. 

“Something was missing from my life and career. As a Project Chance board member, watching my mom work since 2008, I saw her service dogs help these children achieve their maximum potential and independence. I wanted to teach and become part of that process,” Szwedzinski said. As the NFSSE Project Search instructor, she teaches older students vocational education, resume-writing, career options, work and life skills, employability, life enrichment and independent living. 

Pam and Corkey Harvey’s daughters Peyton, 12, and Parker, 10, attend Riverside Presbyterian Day School while daughter Presley, 7, who is diagnosed with Down syndrome, attends NFSSE. Presley’s consistent response to ZenBowie sums up the dog’s beneficial impact on students, according to her grateful mother.

ZenBowie with NFSSE students Cassie Davis and Ella Achtemeier
ZenBowie with NFSSE students Cassie Davis and Ella Achtemeier

“Presley knows she’s safe with ZenBowie and is not afraid of him. He instantly brings out her personality. She lights up, opens up, communicates and interacts with the dog and others,” Pam Harvey said. “We love the school’s programs; it’s a gift that they allow service dogs on campus.”

Melissa Leen Koch of Ortega is devoted to her nephew, William Leen, 8, who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. She became a board member for Project Chance, because of William and his service dog, Shiloh, 5. Currently busy with infant twin girls, Koch remains a passionate advocate for Project Chance and the life-changing importance of service dogs for autistic children like her nephew. 

“When William was diagnosed with autism, our whole family got that diagnosis. It changed our lives. We’ve learned so much about how we can help,” she said. “Before Shiloh, William struggled, became overwhelmed and completely shut-down for just a family dinner. Now, if that happens, he spends quiet time with Shiloh, petting her and relaxing until he can rejoin us. He was able to be part of my wedding, because Shiloh was there. He attends third grade, with accommodations, at Seaside Charter School. He’s visited Disney, Sea World, and can go shopping or ride on airplanes. Shiloh’s presence gives him confidence so he can do things and effectively communicate with others.” Koch is a corporate event planner completing her master’s degree in non-profit management.

Melissa Leen Koch on her wedding day with son, William, Shiloh and her husband, Ryan, and other family members
Melissa Leen Koch on her wedding day with son, William, Shiloh and her husband, Ryan, and other family members

Roberta Cooley, a Jacksonville native and San Jose resident, first came to NFSSE in 2005 as the parent of a student, her now-adult son, David. A 30-year, multi-subject teacher, she is currently the NFSSE Garden Resource Teacher. Cooley guides students through the growing seasons, cultivating vegetables, herbs, and plants from seed in the adjacent Berry Good Farms. Students make and taste basic salads and soups from their produce. Cooley first learned about Project Chance because several students had service dogs.

“While not every child is a ‘dog person’, when a fearful or hesitant child sees everyone else happily petting the dog, that overcomes fear and encourages more interaction and participation than might otherwise occur,” she said. “The dogs give teachers a positive tool to use as a reward. ‘If you finish this work, you may walk ZenBowie,’ is strong motivation.  Walking the dog outside also gives students exercise and breaks during the school day. It’s amazing to see the dog sense exactly what a child needs at any given time, which instantly helps lessen or avoid frustration or irritation.” 

According to research from Autism Speaks, the largest autism advocacy organization in the U.S., service dogs soothe and calm sensory overload. They can quietly recognize, disrupt, or de-escalate anxiety or agitation through subtle tactile touch by leaning against or laying across a child’s lap. They promote social skills, interaction, and eye contact and provide critical unconditional acceptance for children with differences. Most importantly, they protect those who lack personal safety awareness and may wander or run away. 

Students ages 6 – 22, with intellectual and developmental differences, attend NFSSE to receive academic and therapeutic programs specifically tailored to individual students.  Enrichment opportunities include art, music, extensive Berry Good Farm classes and activities, physical education, after-school clubs, summer camps, year-round activities and the Delores Barr Weaver Therapeutic Equestrian Center. A transition program for ages 18-22 is offered and a post-graduate program for ages 22 -40 with community job site and vocational training is available.

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