- March 16, 2017
The most important number being discussed in Cynthia Flores’ Braden River Elementary autism spectrum disorder class might be 104.
As in the hulking, 104-pound, Rhodesian ridgeback therapy dog who began visiting students this semester.
Three ASD classes at Braden River Elementary and two Varying Exceptionalities classes have chosen to try animal therapy to help students with their learning process.
Enter Shumba, a 10-year-old champion show dog who has Flores excited about the possibilities.
Flores, who began working at Braden River two years ago, had implemented a dog therapy program at Sea Breeze Elementary School while she was teaching ASD students there.
At Sea Breeze, the dog’s name was Cinco, and Flores saw great success with her students while Cinco was providing weekly therapy sessions with them.
“We walked her, talked to her, told her how to sit and we would play fetch with her, too — it was very interactive,” Flores said.
Cinco provided some outstanding numbers.
“Social skills increased 65% during the 2015-16 school year,” Flores said. “Eye contact, greetings ... students were able to tell the dog their name as well as remembering her name. They were more interactive with a dog.”
Now it’s Shumba’s turn.
“At the beginning of the school year I told our parents we would be doing animal therapy, and they were excited and onboard,” Flores said.
Shumba was a hit with the students.
“They are very excited about this,” said Lisa Wade, a VE teacher at Braden River Elementary. “I think they feel important with Shumba here.”
It’s all good news to East County’s Livija Denavs-Rebane, who was able to get Shumba certified as a therapy dog in September 2014 while they were living in Pennsylvania. Denavs-Rebane said it was a rigorous process and included her own FBI background being checked. Therapy dog owners have certain access to schools and hospitals.
“It was a very elaborate process,” Denavs-Rebane said.
She said Shumba had no trouble passing her own requirements.
“The dog has to have a good, calm personality and be comfortable around different age groups,” the 75-year-old Denavs-Rebane said. “The dog must know how to sit, then stay sitting, stay lying down, and she can’t react to someone on crutches or in a wheelchair.”
Denavs-Rebane, a retired political science professor, said she and Shumba had plenty of time on their hands, and she thought she would make good use of that time.
“She is getting older, but I still wanted to do something with her,” Denavs-Rebane said. “This is a way to serve the community and help children with reading. I think it is easier for kids to read to a dog than it is for them to read out loud to their teachers.”
Before moving to East Bradenton six months ago, Denavs-Rebane was taking Shumba to practice therapy with students at five elementary schools in Pennsylvania. She said Pennsylvania has a well-established, organized system for therapy dogs.
It’s been a bit different here.
“When we moved here, I did not know where to go,” Denavs-Rebane said. “So I started calling all of the schools in the area and [Braden River Elementary School] was the only one, so far, to respond.”