The first time Avery Will led a dog through an agility course, her excitement was palpable. "She had these big eyes. She was just so excited," recalled her mother, Connie Will. "I had never seen her with that body language."
It was a breakthrough moment for Avery, who has a rare chromosome duplication that causes low cognitive ability, Will said. She immediately saw the potential for creating a type of therapy for special needs children built around agility dogs, which handlers direct through obstacle courses in a race for time and accuracy. Avery, now 12, regularly works with such canines through Agility Ability, a nonprofit organization that her mother co-founded and runs.
"Nothing has changed her life like this," Will said.
The program, which brings together local dog trainers and 4-H students, has had a positive impact on more than 100 central Ohio children with a variety of disabilities, Will said. "They come to our course and find they can do this," she said. "They feel a sense of accomplishment."
Agility Ability's classes and camps boost the children's self-esteem and help improve their focus and sequencing abilities, Will said. Watching the dog follow their commands does wonders for participants, she said.
"They feel like they're actually able to control a situation," Will said. "They feel like they are in charge."
The program has helped Kenzie Thompson develop self-confidence, said her mother, Melissa Thompson of Hilliard. Kenzie, who has autism and an anxiety disorder that prevents her from speaking and communicating in social settings, appreciates that she can use hand signals to communicate with the dogs as they run through the agility course.
The 13-year-old has gradually grown more comfortable with the classes, which are offered at a dog-training facility in Gahanna. In the beginning, she would stand away from the other children and watch. Now, her mother said, she participates wholeheartedly and has even befriended Emma Newell, one of the 4-H volunteers.
"She really likes Emma," Thompson said. "She will nod and speak around her."
Emma, a junior at Pickerington High School North, has been working with Agility Abilityfor four years. She enjoys introducing agility skills and her dog, Quincy, to the kids in the program.
"Kenzie and I clicked right away," she said. "Kenzie and I just know how to communicate without the need for so many words. We don't have to talk a lot to enjoy the sport of agility together, listen to the same music or find the same things funny."
The opportunity to work with the students has been great for Emma and the other teen volunteers, said her mother, Jennifer Newell, who also volunteers with the organization.
"All of the teens have gotten so much out of it," she said. "It has benefitted everybody."
Allie Joy looks forward to the lessons because she enjoys working with the dogs. "I like to train the dogs," said the 20-year-old, who has brain damage and is on the autism spectrum. "He has to listen to me."
The activity has many benefits, said her mother, Natalie Joy of Dublin. It requires Allie to remember a series of directions and follow them, she said. Running through the obstacles is great exercise, and the classes provide lots of socialization. "I love that she has to not only communicate with people but animals as well," Joy said.
Jarrod House, who has autism and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, started the program because he wants to work with animals when he graduates from Olentangy Liberty High School.
"I want to be a vet tech," the 16-year-old said. "I just love animals. When I heard it was working with animals, I said, 'I'm ready to go.' "
Agility Abilityoffers weekly sessions in the fall and winter and weeklong day camp in the summer (this year's camp already sold out). Each participant is paired with a trained handler and his or her dog. The handlers, all of whom undergo specialized training to work with the students, are a mix of therapists, agility enthusiasts and student volunteers, Newell said. Agility Ability is recognized as an American Kennel Club therapy dog certification organization.
"Agility Ability therapy dogs have been through extensive training, testing and certification, which is recognition of their ability to work with children, especially children with special needs," Newell said. "We are looking for dogs and handlers that are interested in this high degree of handling as well as working with our special students."