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No dogma in dogs’ abilities to help humans

POULSBO — One of the reasons assistant dog trainer Diane Canafax was able to save Rufus, a 3-year-old Labrador retriever mix, from being euthanized at the pound was that she knew he could be trained to save others’ lives.

Little did she know that the very same pooch could be one to return the favor and save hers.

It is ironic that Canafax, who through the organization “All Things PawsAble,” which helps train dogs to assist humans with vision, hearing and other problems, found out she, too, is going deaf. And soon, Rufus will become her “ears.”

For Canafax — who admitted she once slept through a fire at a hotel because she couldn’t hear it — having the dog is a truly a potentially lifesaving measure.

“Animals can touch us in ways that humans cannot,” she said. “These dogs are being trained to be a partner for people who need them.”

Though they’re often trained to become eyes and ears for people, recent scientific research and new therapy methods are proving canines can help humans — and save their lives — in many ways.

“The dogs help us to understand our problems,” said Donny Diaz, 12, a student in the North Kitsap School District’s Summit Program. “At the beginning of the year, I was not taking responsibility for my actions. I’ve started to now.”

The Summit Program is designed to help behaviorally challenged students, who have significantly disrupted their school to the point of removal from their classroom environment.

Summit takes those students and, while continuing their education, attempts to correct their behavior. It is viewed as a last resort for students who don’t behave at school.

“My job is to integrate them back into their classes,” said Summit teacher Phil Campbell. “It’s a temporary place for them. Unfortunately, some do make it and some don’t.”

Last year, Diaz and four of his classmates began working with abused, neglected and homeless animals every Friday at the animal shelter Furry Tale Farms on Bainbridge Island.

Though it may seem like a contradiction, students with behavioral problems that work with troubled animals produces mutually beneficial results for both animal and human.

“These kids have trained long and hard with these dogs,” Campbell said.

“These guys have developed the skills to help the dogs get back on track.”

Their work ethic and discipline with the canines has translated into the classroom, Campbell was happy to report.

“We’ve seen improvement across the board,” he said.

The program will continue next year, thanks to a Kitsap Community Foundation grant that will allow Canafax — with Rufus and other dogs that visit the school in tow — to continue working with the dogs and the students.

Part of the program’s success stems from the canine’s amazing senses and the students acknowledgment of them. As a result, the students know the dogs’ behavior will be a result of their own.

“If you’re mad the dog will be scared,” wrote Davis Mueller, one of the summit students, “and if you’re happy, then the dog will be happy.”

A canine’s intuitive senses are being utilized currently in many breakthrough scientific experiments. A recent study by Amersham Hospital in Britain found that dogs can detect bladder cancer through a patient’s urine, with a success rate of 41 percent.

Dogs, which are thought to have from 10,000 to 100,000 times the sense of smell that humans possess, have also been at the center of countless stories from skin cancer survivors, who claim their pooches sniffed constantly at particular moles that turned out to be cancerous.

A familiar site on Kitsap Peninsula are the police K-9s used to sniff out possible bombs boarding ferries.

For the Summit program’s purposes, it is the canine’s ability to detect human emotions. Dogs have an especially heightened sense to smell fear, which Rufus has since used to save a life. During one therapy session before Rufus’ Summit stint, the pooch became highly anxious and excited around a particular student in the district. Kimbra Kern, a learning specialist in the district who has worked with troubled animals for 10 years, talked extensively with the student and learned he was contemplating suicide that day.

A child’s behavior around a dog can tell educators invaluable information. Campbell said that if a child is willing to maliciously harm an animal, they could be on the verge of bringing — and using — a gun at school.

Animals have since been used to help people recover from all kinds of tragedies and crises.

Canine therapy was heavily utilized following the Columbine High School tragedy in April 1999. The severe trauma and emotional shock endured by students who witnessed that horrific event caused, quite literally, a temporary termination of certain brain functions, such as verbal skills. Trauma often suppresses the brain’s ability to produce serotonin, a neurochemical connected with moodiness, impulse control, sleeping, depression and memory.

In many cases, the dogs could draw out suppressed emotions of the trauma victims, through basic interaction — by petting, playing and just being there with them — thus greatly enhancing the healing process and restoring those brain functions.

“They’re more than just an animal,” said Summit student David Parker, 14. “They’re practically human.”

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