Nellie’s Schoolhouse is a unique program that bring dogs and children together. Hear what some parents and volunteers have to say about the program.

It was incredible to see Danny chilling out on the couch with young Zeke nearby in the Danny and Zeke the Dog same room. Only three months ago, Danny hid in his bedroom under the covers when good old Gus showed up wagging his tail for the first visit. Now Danny is proudly interacting with not just one but two retrievers.

Danny’s anxiety with dogs has impeded group activities that we all take for granted. Each visit with the dogs he has made successful gains in overcoming his fear. Many relatives, friends, and neighbors own dogs. Activities such as waiting for the school bus, holiday dinners with cousins, walking in the neighborhood etc..all potentially involve being around various dogs. Learning and successfully interacting with dogs will surely improve Danny’s quality of life.

~Lisa Kogan, parent of one of the children in our program

And the terrific thing about dogs is that they are loyal companions, non judgmental, and happy to please. Danny feels respected by the dogs and he respects them too. For a child always trying hard to prove himself to other people, his dog therapy sessions have become a very positive experience. Now he cheers when the dogs show up. It is a true weekly highlight. He holds his head up high with a feeling of accomplishment.

As a professional dog trainer with a specialty in Animal Assisted Therapy, I have seen firsthand the difference a therapy dog can make in a child’s life. Through Nellie’s Schoolhouse, I bring my sweet, mellow Cavalier Poppins to visit with children. Whether working one -on -one with a child, or in a classroom setting, interactions with Poppins noticeably ease a child’s anxieties, help to build social skills, and boost his or her confidence.

~Meg Boscov, volunteer, certified dog trainer and founder of Mutt Match, an organization that connects rescue and shelter dogs with families.

I am a veterinarian and board-certified internal medicine specialist by training and I have worked for Mars Incorporated in pet care for the last 18 years.   My current position is the Director of Global Scientific Affairs where I am fortunate to have a role in supporting research into the societal benefits of human-animal interactions.   I have always had a passion for animals and there have only been rare instances in my life when I’ve been without a pet dog or cat or multiples of each.  I live in Downingtown with my husband, Dr. Gail Smith, also a veterinary surgeon, and our three dogs, cat and fish.   I became interested in working with therapy dogs years ago and am blessed to have had two yellow Labrador retrievers who have a talent for this work.   My current pet, Phoebe, is a rescued 9-10(ish) year old that doesn’t really think of herself as a dog, but rather prefers the company of anyone who will give her attention.  She is calm, loving and forever in need of a good scratch, and pet therapy visitations with her are a joy.   I barely have to direct her at all as she seems to sense what is needed of her, and she shares her company and smiles with whomever she touches.  She is certified by KPETS (Keystone Pet Enhanced Therapy Services) and is happiest when I put her vest on to take her on her visits.

Phoebe and I have been working with Nellie’s Schoolhouse (NS) for the past eight months.  We have weekly visits to a special needs class at the local Middle School with Tom and his dog, Gus.   The children have a range of challenges, e.g. in the autistic spectrum and Down’s Syndrome, and while many are non-verbal, they clearly have a curiosity and rich sense of what animals are in their lives.   Some have pets, and others have only just learned through NS how to approach a dog.   Each week we work on having them greet the dogs, and then pet, groom, walk the dog on a leash and provide a treat.  It’s been a rewarding journey to see the individual progress each child makes as they greet Phoebe and Gus each week.  Some call her by name, and others have learned to sign ‘dog’.  One young man in the class who was particularly fearful of dogs when we first began our visits would stay in the far back of the room.   In time, his curiosity won out, and he began to come closer, eventually approach the dogs and even brush them.   Walks were a challenge, as he found it particularly concerning when we made a turn and the dogs faced him directly.   Now after several months, he is clearly the Most Improved of the class, and he now participates fully and seems to enjoy stroking and brushing the dogs and has nearly overcome his fear of feeding a treat by wearing a sock over his hand so as not to make contact with their mouths.  I look forward to our weekly visits and always leave with a smile and a warm fuzzy glow for having shared Phoebe with these amazing kids.

~Dr. Karyl Hurley, member of board, volunteer, Director of Global Scientific Affairs for Mars Petcare and specialist in Small Animal Veterinary Medicine.

In my short time working with Nellie’s Schoolhouse, I have watched my dog, Millie, connect with children and young adults who are in many different places on the spectrum. Clenched hands become unclenched; kids afraid to touch her, are able to brush her; non-verbal kids pay very close attention to her when they walk her; verbal ones ask questions about her behavior and habits. Somehow, Millie reaches kids where they are and takes them a little farther.

Our most steady client is a fifth grader who is extremely verbal but has difficulty connecting with others. We have been working with him since January. He was very frightened of touching Millie and often wore gloves when brushing her or stroking her. He is now able to brush her and touch her without gloves and calls Millie “his dog.” She has become a member of his family and he has developed genuine affection for her. His goal is to get a dog of his own.

I feel part of our success is due to the individual relationship Nellie’s Schoolhouse develops with its clients as well as the consistency of regular visits. We ask for a “buy in” from all members of the family so that they can feel part of the progress. The steps we take may seem small but to many they are giant leaps and they often happen in relatively short periods of time. It has been an honor and a pleasure to watch the magic that happens when dogs connect with autistic kids.

~Kit Feldman, member of the board, volunteer and freelance writer of non-fiction, including Culinary Canines: 30 Chefs Cook for Their Dogs.

Evan loves working with the dogs (Nellie and Gus) and their trainer.  In the short time that he’s worked with the dogs he has become more confident using the commands and interacting with the dogs and has begun to transfer and apply skills at home. He beams each time he successfully gets her to complete a task. When one of the dogs first licked Evan, he was so distracted by the touch of the dog’s tongue that it was hard for him to focus. This has since passed and become a part of his routine when he works with the dogs. Using natural interactions with the dogs we have worked on sensory goals and social goals in a low stress way. Evan has begun playing and interacting with our family pets with more confidence and frequency, even asking to walk the dogs, a chore/task previously reserved for the rest of the family.

~Nina Butler- Roberts, member of board, parent and teacher of high school science at Germantown Academy.

Seeing Ira interact with xxx was an amazing experience. His eye gaze, interpersonal skills and expressive language were on point. He appeared to enjoy the interaction and was at ease. Really amazing to see!

~Heather Van Horn, board member and Head of Lower Merion Autism Program.

As a parent of twin boys on the autism spectrum, we have considered the possibility of a dog in our family for several years. We’ve read the studies showing the great connections that can take place for kids, and my husband and I both grew up with family dogs. However, while one of our sons loves all things animals, Nathan has a fear of dogs. Tom, and Nellie’s Schoolhouse, was recommended to us as a way of testing the ideas of a dog out with the family. Tom, Gus and Zeke have been coming to our home weekly now for about 2 months. Nathan’s comfort level has increased in a way I didn’t think would be possible in such a short time. He walks, pets and interacts with the dogs more and more every visit.  In the next few weeks we will bring home a new puppy, and Tom will certainly be part of this process as we train and incorporate a new member of the family into our lives. Tom’s warm and gentle ways with his dogs are exceeded only by his warmth with our boys. We look forward to the next chapter!

Karen Misher, parent and founder of A Step Up Academy

We never knew how badly we needed Gus and Tom until they became a part of our programming at TALK.  All of our students have severe language disorders.  When they first arrive, many have experienced years of failure because of this struggle to communicate.  Imagine what it is like.  Think about being in a room with other people for even five minutes without the ability to express basic thoughts.

Gus and Tom have the extraordinary ability to help rectify all of that.   The emotional bond our students have with Gus transcends their communication difficulties, anxiety, sensory and learning challenges.  Gus accepts them as they are and, though wordless, the communication between child and dog is very real.

Beyond the emotional connection, learning how to care for and train Gus has gone a long way towards building self-confidence in our students.   When our students work with Gus, they experience themselves as competent — perhaps for the first time in their lives.  They are so proud to show their newly found skills to their classmates and then smother Gus with affection.

Nothing brings more joy and excitement to our students than knowing Gus and Tom are on their way for a visit.  The whole story can be read in their contagious smiles!!

I am forever grateful to Tom for creating Nellie’s Schoolhouse.  What a gift it is to our students!

TALK Institute Warmest regards,
Melinda Kotler
Executive Director
TALK Institute and School