Dog being trained to assist the disabled goes to college

Beth Lewis works with Grace in the classroom.
Beth Lewis teaches psychology at Rhode Island College. Students in her summer classes have an unusual classmate – a 10-month-old golden retriever named Grace who Lewis is training to become a classroom therapy service dog.

Therapy dogs work with therapists in settings such as clinics, hospitals and nursing homes to help put a patient at ease. Classroom dogs work with students with special needs.

“Speaking directly to a therapist can be intimidating. Somehow, the presence of a dog makes it easier,” Lewis said.

Lewis teaches behavior modification classes at RIC and said that she uses Grace as a teaching tool. Grace, she said, is very quiet in class until she is called upon to demonstrate a certain technique.

“She is a live example of what positive reinforcement can do to help people or animals modify behavior,” Lewis said. “Students can see the whole process from beginning to end.”

Grace is also expected to be trained as a service dog for the deaf and disabled and will be taught such skills as retrieving objects for someone who doesn’t have full hand function or motor skills.

In addition, Grace works as an intern at an outpatient clinic operated by Gateway Healthcare in Providence, working with Lewis to treat children and adults in an outpatient psychotherapy setting.

“A dog is a non-threatening, unconditionally loving being. It helps (the patient),” Lewis said.

Beth Lewis and Grace.
Lewis trains dogs through the NEADS (National Education for Assistance Dog Services) in Princeton, Mass., an organization that trains and provides rescued dogs and donated puppies to assist physically disabled people to lead more independent lives at home, work and school. The training program lasts for up to 15 months.

NEAD evaluates a dog first for temperament and intelligence. At three months, the puppy is transferred to one of Rhode Island’s Medium Security prisons where inmates are trained to be handlers. Inmates have the puppy for part of the week, while a community puppy raiser, like Lewis, trains it the rest of the time. Community puppy raisers socialize the dogs to people, places and events.

But Grace’s training is a bit different than the other dogs because she knows firsthand what it is like to be disabled, at least temporarily.

Last May, Grace had to leave the NEADS program because of health problems. She recently had surgery to repair one hip and is expected to have a second surgery on the other hip in August. She was reinstated to the NEADS program and reassigned to Lewis in June. It was only the second time that a dog was brought back into the program.

NEADS refers to dogs that leave their program as “fabulous flunkouts” because their training and temperament puts them in high demand as pets.

Grace goes for a swim.
Grace is now being raised and trained full-time by Lewis. She takes Grace swimming everyday before class as part of her physical therapy.

“On the first day, she was timid and didn’t like me trying to support her,” Lewis said. “After much hunting, I found a vest that fit her. She’s a swimming machine now.”

In October, after she heals from her second hip surgery, Grace will move on to advanced puppy training in Princeton.

Lewis is looking for help to pay for Grace’s next surgery and the mounting doctor bills. A Massachusetts veterinarian has donated $3,000 of services, and Lewis and others have raised about $2,000 for Grace. About $8,000 will be needed to cover Grace’s surgical expenses, Lewis said. Grace has her own web page that can be accessed through the NEADS Web site ( and a special account for donations.

Lewis said that once Grace’s surgery, recovery and training are complete, she’ll be ready to partner with a person who has to overcome disabilities, just as she has. Because of her physical limitations, Grace will not be placed in a setting that would require her to jump, turn on lights or open doors.

“This is a special dog,” Lewis said. “All I can say is that I’m thrilled she is back with me and has another chance to be of service to others.”