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Dogs offer young students a sense of peace
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Britnee Kinard sits with students at Richmond Hill Elementary and Gunner, a service dog. - photo by Photo by Alena Cowley

Richmond Hill Elementary School students were amazed at the height of service dogs Winston, a golden retriever, and Gunner, a great Pyrenees, during the animals visit for Georgia Exceptional Children’s Week.

But seeing that difference and accepting it just may have been the point of it all.

"He is very tall," SD Gunner Fund founder Britnee Kinard agreed with the children, adding how Winston is just 10 months old. "So, he’s still a big puppy right now."

Service dogs from the SD Gunner Fund program visited elementary, middle and high schools this week as part of Georgia Exceptional Children’s Week.

Exceptional Children’s Week is a state observance March 6-10 that highlights special education and the support programs for those students.

"I just really wanted to celebrate our differences and give back to our kids," Bryan County Public Schools district parent mentor Celena Hughes said. "It’s all about building awareness, acceptance and an understanding of other children and their different abilities."

The 30-minute visits gave students a chance to learn about the dogs and just enjoy a serenity the dogs seemed to bring with them.

Hughes said teachers marveled at the calming effect the dogs had on the students.

The students learned how Winston is going to be a service dog for an autistic boy.

"How awesome would it be to take a dog to school every day?" Kinard asked the group.

You got a friend in me

Between classroom visits, Kinard and her husband, Hamilton, explained how service dogs help special needs children. Besides veteran care, the SD Gunner Fund program also works with dogs for children with autism and other disabilities.

Kinard said a service dog can help an autistic child with communication and social skills.

"So Winston’s job is actually to go in and do what he’s great at, look cute and cuddly," she said. "It’s just, overall, to help them feel welcome and social and to help them communicate, to help them feel like they have someone there that understands them."

Aside from that, there is also a safety aspect.

"Unfortunately, 70 percent of all deaths in autistic children result from drowning because they have an attraction to water," Kinard said.

A sixth sense

The service dogs can be trained to spot allergies, diabetic emergencies and other health conditions.

"We just finished our first seizure-response dog," Kinard said, noting the difference between seizure-alert dogs.

That collie went through more than a year of training, but there is also a natural sync.

"It’s the connection between the child and the dog that cannot be duplicated through training or education," Hamilton Kinard explained.

According to their press release, the SD Gunner Fund helps veterans and special needs children with the financial expense of owning a service dog. Kinard does some training and some of the more complex training is done by other specialists.

Service dogs are not breed-specific and the dog can be provided to the family or one currently owned can be trained.

In training, the dogs learn how to pick up on routines, body language and cues within the first three weeks.

"ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) law requires for the dog to hit one task per the disability. We try to hit three," Kinard said.

Gunner is Hamilton Kinard’s dog and spent 18 months to two years in training.

The disabled Army veteran described an "emotion language," that develops with the service dog.

"And it’s progressive. He’s learned so many things that he and I do as a pair, even outside of training," he said of Gunner. "Every dog can be trained, but once they go to the owner, they refine it."

SD Gunner Fund placed nine dogs last year and five this year, so far.

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