Marin Humane Society offers innovative program for children with autism

NOVATO, Calif. (KGO) -- For children living with autism, communication can be a challenge, but an innovative program in Marin County is hoping to change that by pairing some of those talented kids with some very talented dogs.

The program, called Jumping for Joy, is run through the Marin Humane Society and is free for families in Marin County.

Kids living with autism are paired with dogs and given the goal of guiding them through different hurdles on the agility course.

Dogs learn to clear the kind of obstacles they might face in competition while their handlers learn to overcome obstacles they might face in life.

The curriculum was the brain child of high school volunteer Rachel Blackman, who grew up with autism in her family.

"A lot of times when you have autism, you're treated differently and you don't get to experience a lot of the things the average kid gets to do," Blackman said.

The dogs are pre-trained, and the students practice the hurdles one at a time, starting slowly to learn how to bond and build trust.

"I thought about how they could do it so they could actually learn something and then show that they learned it and show that they could do something and prove that to themselves and then their family," Blackman said.

Special education instructor Stephanie Weiss helps with the curriculum and says building communication skills is a core benefit.

"The other piece of it is, they don't have to worry about language to relate to a dog, so language is an area of deficit to many, many children with autism," Weiss said.

The program lasts six weeks. After practicing the individual challenges, students ultimately run their dog through the complete course.

Zach Mani is a spirited 17-year-old with autism. Steve Mani, Zach's father, believes the blend of physical and verbal commands used on the course provides a natural form of interaction for Zach and other kids with autism.

"It levels the playing field to the point where he's communicating without working hard at it, and it's great," Steve Mani said.

When the end of the course is reached, there is plenty of cheering to go around.

"Everyone clapped and cheered for all the dogs about doing training exercise, and that's how they learned to do," Zach Mani said.
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