Trained guide dog soothes autistic children in the classroom - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Trained guide dog soothes autistic children in the classroom

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WAUNAKEE (WKOW) -- Can a dog make a difference in a classroom? You've probably heard of autism, a disorder affecting the ability to interact and communicate.

There is no cure yet, but the cliche that a dog is man's best friend is fact in a local special education classroom.

The students in Katie Hauge's class at Waunakee Middle School have a variety of special needs. Most of them have some degree of autism, which affects one out of every 100 Wisconsin children.

Eighth-grader Nick Lutz has a high-functioning form of autism called Asperger's syndrome. His language and intellectual skills develop like his fellow students, but he has a tough time with communication and social interaction, so fitting in is hard.

For an hour every Tuesday, a special friend visits the class: Arya, a trained guide dog.

"She acts kind of like a confidant; they can talk to her, they can read to her, they can discuss things and not really feel weird about it," said Patrick Schwigen, a teacher's aide in the classroom.

And for these kids, a friend is exactly what they need.

"You don't worry about being rejected, and you don't have to worry about doing or saying the right thing," said Hauge. "She's kind of an unconditional partner."

It doesn't take much - just a wag of her tail - but the teachers say her presence alone makes a big difference.

"If it's a rough day for some of the kids - maybe they're not having the best time at school - they have an opportunity to just sit back and relax and not really think about that. They get to play with a dog for part of the day; who wouldn't want to do that?" said Schwigen.

"Maybe sometimes if I have a stressful day, [Arya] will calm me down," said Nick Lutz.

A 2008 Canadian study found service dogs act as a "sentinel of safety" for autistic children. In the study, kids felt more comfortable and confident with the dog around.

Still, autism experts want to see more research before they endorse this as a viable therapy for the disorder.

"Parents and teachers should be cautious about their generalizations from this instance of anecdotal information to their own child who has autism," said Wendy Machalicek, professor of behavioral disorders at UW-Madison. "This could turn out to be a great therapy for individuals who have autism, but the case is still out."

But in Hauge's classroom, there's a big difference when Arya is in the room.

"Temper can be an issue, but whenever the dog comes in, it's always a highlight of the day, and they know that if they want to be able to spend time with Arya, they have to be on their best behavior," said Schwigen.

Sometimes all it takes is a calming touch that only a dog can provide.

"She's nice and soft and fluffy, like a cloud," said Lutz. "When I told my parents about this, they were really excited, and they were thinking about getting me a dog."

The students aren't the only ones enjoying the visits; Arya does, too. Her owner, Ruth Meese of Waunakee, says Arya sees this visit as a call to duty, and one she's happy to answer.

"She enjoys it. She looks forward to it. You can tell when she's coming into the building. When she's at home and gets her vest on and she knows she's off to go working, she's ready," said Meese.

Meese says Arya was born to serve, and she takes her job seriously.

"If she can help lower the stress level for the kids and help them focus, and even 10 minutes out of the week, make learning fun for them, then she's done her job," said Meese.

Judging by the looks on the kids' faces, it's a job well done.

"She's so calm, and I mean, look at her. Isn't she the sweetest thing you've ever seen?" said Lutz.

27 News Reporter Jamie Hersch spent some time with Arya and her students to see what a difference she really makes in the classroom. Watch 27 News at 10 for the full story.

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