A local nonprofit organization is using man’s best friend to improve the lives of local kids. Perrysburg-based Dogs For Difference, founded in 2018, brings canines to schools to assist children with disabilities, to nursing facilities and residential homes to reduce stress, encourage exercise, and to provide an enriching environment.
Working with children with disabilities
Five years ago, both Aaron Witt, president, and Travis Harmon, executive president, were undergraduate students at the University of Toledo, where they were involved in an organization that helped children with disabilities. After graduating, the two expanded the idea of Dogs for Difference into a nonprofit organization that caters to various Toledo area groups, including special education classrooms. Volunteers bring two to four dogs and spend 15-30 minutes in each classroom, depending on the size of the class. Volunteers select the dogs to provide the best experience possible — some dogs may be best for petting, while other dogs may do best sitting on laps.
“We try to be hands-on and match the different personalities of the kids with the different personalities of the dogs,” explains Witt. “If somebody just wants to sit and pet the dogs, that’s perfect for some dogs, and if somebody wants a high energy dog that wants to play fetch or go for walks, we have that too.” The dogs and volunteers begin their visits in stations and bring in students to meet the dogs and to allow for a “feeling out period.”
Prior to visiting each school, Dogs For Difference requires that each student that comes in contact with the dogs has a signed permission slip, obtainable through the school or through the organization. There will always be at least one volunteer per dog during visits.
“I think when you walk into a classroom with the dogs, you immediately see the change on the children’s faces — the big smiles they get and how they react,” says Aaron.
Dogs For Difference has visited at least 15 schools in two years. Prior to the pandemic, volunteers would visit schools two to three times per week. Those number of visits dropped off over the past couple of years, but Aaron hopes to get back to the pre-COVID numbers.
Dogs For Difference currently has 20-30 volunteers and 15-20 dogs with various breeds. Each dog goes through temperament training to make sure they will be comfortable around large groups and to ensure they remain calm around children.
Every volunteer is required to have an up-to-date BCI background check and every dog is required to be up-to-date on their vaccines. Records for both volunteers and dogs are on file and available upon request.
Learn about each dog at dogsfordifference.com.
Schedule a visit
Those interested in the program can reach out to Aaron directly through email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by visiting the group’s Facebook page, or by visiting dogsfordifference.com.
“It doesn’t really feel like work of any sort,” adds Witt. “For me and Travis, when you have the stress of the week, then you see the dogs and kids interact, it’s such a wholesome and positive experience. It just helps focus on the positive.”