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Handicapped Class's Pet Project : Puppy Love Spurs Children's Success

December 01, 1985|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

Barbara Franco stood behind her wheelchair, the weight of her body shifting from her legs to her arms as she hugged the back of the chair.

Slowly, the 11-year-old Torrance girl leaned forward, her blue tennis shoes shuffling one ahead of the other. The wheelchair started to roll, and Barbara followed close behind.

Barbara was going for a walk with one of her favorite teachers at Washington School in Redondo Beach. Seated in the middle of the wheelchair was Foxy--a 5-month-old mixed terrier.

"She's smart," said Barbara, as she proudly guided the chair from the glossy tile floor over a bump, and onto a yellow-speckled carpet. "It is fun with Foxy."

Barbara, who has muscular dystrophy, is one of a dozen handicapped students at Washington School who have been taking lessons from Foxy for the past two months. The black-and-white puppy, found wandering on Pacific Coast Highway last summer by a Redondo Beach animal control officer, has become the professor of Room 12.

"She has given Barbara the motivation to get out of her chair," said Jackie Wood, Barbara's teacher at the county-run special education school and the brains behind Foxy. "Barbara started to get out of the wheelchair on her own the first day we got Foxy."

Foxy is a plain-looking mutt, with a thin face, long legs, bushy eyebrows and a skinny tail. She has no official papers and has never been professionally trained. Her sole pretention is a scarlet-red collar, loaded with glistening rhinestones.

But looks and credentials don't seem to matter in Room 12.

"She is either ugly or gorgeous, we don't know yet," Wood said. "What she does is bring the idea of 'reverence of life' to the class. Anything that is alive, we need to cherish. I tend to go overboard, but I think it is an important quality to get across."

There have been many success stories at Washington since Foxy arrived. Among them, the dog has inspired Barbara to take daily walks; has helped Courtney Weathers, a 9-year-old boy from Inglewood who has cerebral palsy, to get around without his walker; has encouraged Debbie Howard, a 9-year-old girl from Torrance with cerebral palsy, to sit up straight in her wheelchair; and has helped Jo Sato, a 13-year-old girl from Hawthorne who also has cerebral palsy, to walk without her cane.

In most cases, Wood said, the dog has acted as an incentive for the children, serving as positive reinforcement, replete with unconditional love, a wagging tail and plenty of wet kisses. She has great patience with the children.

Redondo Beach Animal Control Officer Linda Michelsen, who spared Foxy from an early death at the pound, said she held on to the puppy because of its unusually mellow temperment. "This dog was calm and didn't get frightened by things," she said.

After picking up Foxy, Michelsen, who visits special education classes at Washington School once a month, thought someone at the school--perhaps a teacher--would adopt the puppy.

Wood immediately took to Foxy and began integrating the dog into her lesson plans. The children learned how to care for the dog, how to wash it, pet it, brush it and feed it. At night the dog went to Wood's home in Redondo Beach, and on weekends it stayed at a gym she owns in Hermosa Beach.

Foxy was first named Linda in honor of Michelsen, but the men at Wood's gym, saying the dog was a "foxy lady," renamed her, Wood said.

"I think these kids can relate to an animal who can't speak," said Michelsen. "It is an excellent idea to have animals work with kids. It helps the kids try harder, pay attention more, and it gives the kids something to look forward to."

Foxy's most notable accomplishments have involved her ability to get the children to exercise and work--despite their disabilities. The dog also has been useful in math lessons. The children have used her to count (they keep a tally of the fleas they catch each time they wash her), and to learn about measurement. Foxy's tail, for example, is seven paper clips long, as is her leg.

But Foxy is a puppy, and, at times, she acts like one. Wood confesses that she has spoiled the dog. As a result, Foxy sometimes is more interested in Wood's affection or playing with a toy than following the lesson plan. When she is not needed for instruction, Foxy rests in her bed.

The dog also ran into some problems with the school's administration when she started attending class. Principal Betty Hardie was not sold on the idea of having a dog in class.

"We are real conscious of making sure that we are protecting the interests of our students," Hardie said. She said it was crucial that Foxy be medically fit and that she not bother any of the children in the class.

Hardie asked Wood to submit a report explaining why Foxy should remain at Room 12. Not only did she get a report, but she got a handful of letters and drawings from the children.

"I am a convert now," Hardie said.

In the coming months, Foxy will be making some guest appearances at other classes at Washington School, Wood said. The dog has already been helping some severely retarded children overcome their fear of animals and of touching soft things, she said. She has also been chosen by a local animal hospital to star in a film about animal behavior, Wood said.

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