Greyhounds warm hearts at EastConn

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Regional - posted Mon., Feb. 18, 2013
(L to r) Glen, Dylan, Brian and Isaias shower Larry with affection. Photos by D. Coffey.
(L to r) Glen, Dylan, Brian and Isaias shower Larry with affection. Photos by D. Coffey.

When occupational therapist Meghan Rodier saw a poster for an educational program put on by Greyhound Friends, she saw an opportunity for students in the Northeast Regional Program at EastConn. The K-12 program addresses the educational needs of students with emotional, behavioral and learning disabilities. Rodier thought a visit from Greyhound Friends would allow students a chance for positive social interactions with community members, while also affording them a great sensory experience.

“A lot of kids can be defensive and anxious about touching,” Rodier said. “This is something that might ease them into a good experience. And some children may not have been brought up in environments where they were used to seeing or understanding the need to be kind to animals,” Rodier said. “This is a great opportunity to teach them what it looks like to be kind to animals and why they need to be kind to animals.”

Enter Max, Neal, Larry, Ernie and Grady, some of the lankiest, long-legged dogs on the planet. With a reputation for being the second fastest animal after the cheetah, the greyhound is also known for its gentle temperament. Long the favored companions and hunting dogs of the Egyptians, they seem to have acquired a graceful nobility along with their speed. And the five dogs brought in by owners Cindy Sorensen, Peter Bloom and Stoddard Melhado were especially kind and gentle.

For students whose sensory skill levels are not developed, the dogs are a useful teaching tool. “These dogs are perfect because they are gentle and they give us an opportunity to have that experience,” she said.  “Some of us like deep tissue massage; some of us don't. Our sensory systems tell us what we like and what we don't like. As adults we've just figured out how to react to that. Our job, as teachers, is to have the children try different textures and different experiences. If you don't like something, how do you react to it?”

Greyhound Friends brings its educational program to schools and community groups in order to teach people about the dog as well as to find homes for retired racers. In 30 years, Greyhound Friends has rescued or adopted out almost 10,000 dogs. “They'll race until one of three things happens,” Melhado said. “They get injured, old or they can't win races.” And while many dogs come from race quarter cages, they adjust nicely to couches, rugs and blankets.

Bloom shared stories about teaching dogs about sliding glass doors, stairs and stove tops. “You need to be patient with them,” he said. 

The dogs lay on blankets during a short video and question and answer program. They let the children surround them after the presentation. They stood patiently while being petted. They took dog treats carefully, with manners not usually associated with dogs. And most of the kids seemed to love every minute.

From 82-pound Grady to 68-pound Max, the dogs provided non-threatening opportunities for displays of love and affection. And while no one expected the children to adopt a dog, the kids had a chance to learn about the breed and how to care for them. Although the dogs were docile inside, Melhado warned that once off leash, instinct would kick in and the dogs would be off and running. “They'll chase anything that moves,” he said. “That's what 5,000 years of breeding will do.”

Questions followed the presentation. “Do they eat peanut butter?” one boy asked.

“Ernie would eat a jar full,” Melhado said. “But they are meant to be thin. You should be able to feel their ribs, hip bones and spine.”

When the presentation was over, the students went back to class reluctantly. Some lingered over the animals. One little girl kissed each dog's head before she returned to her classroom.

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