Last week, Laura Madtes cried when taking the state math assessment, growing more anxious and nervous with every question.
Tuesday was different. Madtes’ demeanor changed entirely the moment man’s best friend walked in.
A 5-year-old golden retriever named Sophie entered the classroom at Floral Park Memorial High School, wagging her tail and instantly laying down on the floor, belly up, allowing students to rub her.
Since last January, Roni Perlzweig, a math teacher at the school, has brought her trained therapy dog to interact with autistic students during an after-school program, Promoting Academics through Life Skills (PALS), almost every Tuesday.
Reading to adults can cause anxiety for students, especially those with autism. The good thing about Sophie is that she doesn’t judge, making autistic students more comfortable reading.
On Tuesday Sophie looked up at Laura, pawing at her arm, while she read from a children’s book. Others formed a circle around them, sitting on the floor listening.
“Recently, I was reading her a story about puppies and kittens,” said Laura, 12, of Floral Park. “I like to read to Sophie; she doesn’t comment.”
“Over the years, I’ve just watched Sophie’s magic,” said Perlzweig, 52, of Bayside, Queens. “A child that might be nervous to read to adults or nervous to read to other kids can read to a dog and not get judged.”
While Sophie might open up a quiet student, she can also de-stress children and adults before undergoing surgery.
Perlzweig takes her dog, who is trained to endure antagonism from children and adults, to Holliswood Queens Psychiatric Hospital regularly to visit patients.
After seeing the benefit of having a therapy dog visit patients in the hospital, Perlzweig thought she would bring Sophie to the autistic student program at the high school.
Claire Iglesias, a special education teacher at the high school, was thrilled with the idea.
“She has had a wonderful, positive impact on the students,” Iglesias said. “The kids have just really gravitated towards her. They read to her; they actually just enjoy petting her and being with her.”
Perlzweig’s next mission for her and Sophie is to help lower anxiety in students during testing. She is working on getting permission to stop by classrooms during finals week.
When Iglesias speaks to her students the day after one of Sophie’s visits, she finds that it usually encourages a dialogue between them and helps students become more social.
“It’s ironic, you don’t realize what an animal can do,” Iglesias said. “It’s nice to see them feel so comfortable and show their enthusiasm and excitement when she comes through that door.”