KINGMAN - The children in Janelle Thomas' preschool class at Little Explorers Early Learning Center could hardly keep their hands off the special guest visiting their classroom last week.
Giggling and jumping up and down in excitement, they touched her hair, face, legs and back as they gathered around her. And their guest didn't seem to mind at all as she licked their eager faces and thumped them with her long tail.
Dandy, a pet therapy dog owned by Kit Corson, was visiting the students as part of a weekly session to help them overcome their fear of dogs and learn to appropriately relate to them. Corson led Dandy through a series of tricks, from rolling over and crawling to standing up on her hind legs, before showing them how she brushes the dog's teeth.
"She does tricks," said 3-year-old Abby Smith. "She stands up on her back feet. I like the dog because of what she does. She makes me feel happy."
Thomas said the pair regularly visits her morning preschool class, which is housed in the former La Senita Elementary School, as part of therapy. About 80 percent of her class consists of special needs students who have autism and speech, sensory and cognitive impairments.
"The kids smile and are happy and excited to see Dandy," said Thomas. "They especially like it when the dog's tail hits them in the face. I have a couple of students who have a hard time focusing, but when the dog is here, they pay attention. Dandy is a friend and teaches them responsibility and compassion."
Corson has been using the 5-year-old, 50-pound goldendoodle, which is a cross between a golden retriever and a poodle, as a pet therapy dog in a variety of settings for about four years. She retired her 9-year-old, 80-pound black labradoodle, named Doodle, last year and Dandy officially took over for him. A labradoodle is a cross between a Labrador retriever and a poodle.
Corson, a retired teacher who has trained dogs and horses for years, started doing pet therapy in 2004 with a friend, Laura Woolsey, who later quit after her dog died. Corson and Dandy are registered pet therapists with Pet Partners, an international organization headquartered in Bellevue, Wash. Dandy is rated as a "complex" therapy dog, which means she can handle unusual sounds and situations.
The pair attend schools together, go to nursing homes, see patients in hospice, visit fairs and work with military veterans. Corson said Dandy's ability to handle noise suits her well when she visits the schools and interacts with students who are playing on the slide with her.
Not only does Corson use her dogs to teach children how to treat animals responsibly, the canines also help some students find their voices because of the dogs' non-partial, non-critical nature. Corson remembered a fourth-grader at Manzanita Elementary School who wouldn't read aloud until he decided to whisper to one of her dogs. To encourage him to speak louder, Corson lifted one dog ear, then another, until the boy decided to read clearly to his new friend.
The dogs also have done their part to help dying patients at Joan and Diana Hospice Home, which is run by Kingman Regional Medical Center. Corson said that when she gets a call from a patient's doctor, she and Dandy go to the room and Dandy climbs into Corson's lap when she sits down and the dog lays her head on the patient's bed so she can be petted.
"It gives people in this situation some peace and a lot of comfort," said Corson. "As a rule, they'll pet the dog and enjoy it. We give them something positive at the end of their journey here. Life is to be celebrated, and it's such a gift to be able to give some happiness to these people during a very difficult time."
When requested, Corson and Dandy also provide pet therapy to military veterans who need comfort. Currently, they spend regular time with a Kingman woman who suffers from severe neck and back pain. The veteran recently had neck surgery, but is still facing back surgery. Corson said Dandy serves as a distraction from that pain, bringing her gentle, happy spirit into the home and lighting up the veteran's face each time they meet.
"I'm a firm believer in what we're doing through pet therapy," said Corson. "It brings so much joy to everyone, and it really works."