Dog training for high school students in special education
Students in special education classes can enroll in a special dog training program for their high school diploma
By Diana Bletter | July 2, 2021
The sound of barking dogs is usually not a sound associated with high school. But those are sounds that students hear when a group of canines arrives with a dog trainer at Ohr Torah Stone’s Derech Avot High School in Efrat every week.
Students in special education classes who are enrolled in a special dog training program for their high school diploma learn how to care for and train dogs. The students learn not only how to train the hounds but also about canine biology.
“The major made me want to come to school, and I enjoyed it more,” said student Yaal Riskin, 17, who studied in the program along with four other students who will graduate this year.
Most of the 500 students at the Efrat secondary school study traditional subjects including physics, math and Talmud. There are also 100 students in the school who are in special education programs; of those, some study dog training.
Rabbi Yoni Hollander, the principal of Derech Avot, said that when he joined the school four years ago, he wanted to find a program for students who have difficulty “sitting in the class.” As soon as he and his staff heard about the dog program, “We decided to do it.”
While some might find the noises of the four-legged friends in the courtyard distracting, Rabbi Hollander said, “This is what schools should be – lively places that are full of happiness.”
Students walk the dogs through the school during their training and learn different skills. For example, Riskin explained that dogs are used for their sense of smell; students teach them what to “smell for” and then how to keep track of the scent. Riskin and his peers learned how to teach the dogs about defense and attack, how to look for people, and also trained their canines to hunt for a specific smell – in their case, tobacco.
Rabbi Hollander explained that many of the students want to join the program, however it is geared specifically toward students with emotional or learning disabilities or attention disorders such as ADD or ADHD, which make it difficult to study in a traditional classroom. Students with other special needs, such as those with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a developmental disability that might cause social, communication and behavioral challenges, enroll in other tracks that answer their particular needs and learning styles. He added that the high school makes an effort to include students with special education needs in as many mainstream classes as possible.
“I see that students become more responsible over the course of the studies,” said Yair Blumenfeld, who is head of the school’s dog training program. “It’s a gradual process. As they work with animals, they develop better communication skills.”
Riskin said he always loved dogs and always liked being with them. When there was a presentation about different majors to study and he heard about the dog training, he signed on right away. He said the topic of scent exploration interested him but the downside was he doesn’t like the smell of the dog food – salmon – that remains on his hands after feeding the pups.
Each week, Avishay Hershkovitz, the dog trainer, teaches the students in a hands-on, practical way what it is like to work with canines. The students learn how to teach the dogs how to sit, lie down and stop, what most consider conventional dog-training techniques, using encouraging words along with dog treats. But students also learn more advanced skills.
Simulations are held at the school. In one, for instance, a student hides in a classroom, and the dog (with its student-trainer holding it by a leash) searches through the corridor, trying to find him. Once the dog scents him out, it grabs hold of him and doesn’t release him until the student-trainer commands the dog to do so. (Those taking part in these exercises wear padded bite suits to protect themselves.) The trainers learn how to make sure the dog behaves appropriately, and the attackees, under all the padding, are unhurt.
Riskin said one of his best memories was the time the trainer brought puppies to the school.
“We had to get them used to biting an attacker,” Riskin said. “To do that, [we got] into the [padded] suit and just let five puppies bite us while the other students cheered them on.” He was pleased that the teachers taught the subject in a way that made learning fun. Riskin said he thought the theoretical studies would be “difficult and boring but I found them to be very interesting and fun.”
He said having the dog training program made school a more joyful place for him. Rabbi Hollander said that having animals at the school “brings variety to the study week.”
“I see great changes in our students,” he said. “And I’m sure that dog training is a part of it.”
Ohr Torah Stone is a Modern Orthodox movement of 30 institutions and programs throughout the world. There are six gender-separate high schools in the Ohr Torah Stone network. Each institution provides education to a different population, and each creates its own unique programs to best serve its student body.
At Derech Avot High School, all those who graduate serve in the IDF. Some take a gap year to study before they enlist. In addition to their high school diploma, students in the dog training program receive a certificate of completion that can be used to help them progress on a path toward army service involving dogs. One student who took the training course has applied to serve in the elite IDF canine unit, Oketz, which uses dogs as part of its mission. After graduation this month, Riskin also plans to join the army. As for having dogs of his own when he gets older?
“I currently have no dogs in the house but I once had,” Riskin said. “And I sure will have in the future.”