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Furry friends find a new role

Developmentally disabled kids get a little help from their family dog – and a passionate human

Do as I Do project

They’re said to be man’s best friend and now, four-legged friends of families with a developmentally disabled child are being trained to take on a new, important role. Dogs who complete the Do as I Do (DAID) project become imitation trainers for their human children with the goal of improving physical activity and social well-being in the child.

The College of Public Health and Human Sciences and the Human-Animal Interaction Lab spearhead the DAID project. Graduate student Chloe Simpson ­– along with fellow Animal Sciences graduate student Shelby Wanser – worked on this past summer’s inaugural DAID project camp.

The project is headed by CPHHS Associate Professor Megan MacDonald and College of Agricultural Sciences Assistant Professor Monique Udell. The team spent the summer working with the first 13 participants and their family dogs. Over five weeks, physical activity and interaction were encouraged between the dog and child duos.

The team is currently working on assessment. Chloe says they expect to see changes in physical activity and attachment with the dogs. “It was so amazing,” she says. “Watching the children built bonds with their dogs and take responsibility was really inspiring.”

Animal farm

Chloe grew up in Clarksburg, California – a small town of about 400 residents – on a property that could be considered a bona fide country zoo. Her family owned horses, dogs, parrots, iguanas and lovebirds. Her parents thought the abundance of animals would lead her to not wanting to be around them once she left home. This past summer when she went home, Chloe excitedly applied animal training skills to her childhood pets and her family saw that contrary to their original thinking, she had developed a deep love for them.

Growing up wasn’t easy for Chloe, who struggled academically. She didn’t learn to read until she was in the third grade. She was put into an English Language Learner (ELL) class and labeled as a delayed learned. Despite challenges, she was a determined child and worked hard to finish school and attend college at California State University, Sacramento. These days, her positive energy and focus is contagious to those around her.

“Chloe has this unique ability to make everyone around her feel wanted, interesting and important,” says fellow PhD Kinesiology student Kathy McCarty. “She shows you the value of your worth and encourages it out of you, even on your worse days.”

A shift in focus

Chloe turned her focus toward studying Kinesiology when her dad had a stroke while she was a sophomore in college. After seeing her dad go through rehab, she was inspired to become a physical therapist to provide families with positive experiences. Her focus became further developed when she started working in an autism center and fell in love with the kids and the work, and saw her strength was helping children with autism refine their motor skills. She finished at CSUS in 2015 with her bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology – Exercise Science and Rehabilitation.

Finding her Zen

Chloe’s now a second year Kinesiology master’s student in the adapted physical activity option and she’s as busy as can be. In addition to her work with the DAID project, Chloe works with the college’s IMPACT program, where she focuses on helping children who have inappropriate behaviors by developing behavioral plans to help them reach their goals.

She also travels to Lebanon three times a week to teach an adapted physical education class to elementary, middle and high school students. She works to create activities that are all inclusive and enjoys motivating the whole class to be excited to participate. She recently incorporated yoga ­– a personal favorite – into a two-week unit and the students loved the salutations so much that it is now a regular warm-up activity.

On Mondays, the class starts off with sharing about their weekend with Chloe. “I’ll share what I did and ask them what they did,” she says. “A lot of the kids share they did yoga, some with their dogs, and are so excited about it. One of my goals with lifetime fitness is that they want to go home and continue being active.”

Her schedule may be jammed packed but Chloe reaps personal satisfaction and contentment from the work.

“I went from working with kids nearly my entire life ­– I was a lifeguard for nine years – to not having any interaction with children in graduate school,” she says. “Getting the opportunity in Lebanon has been a game changer and I’ve noticed my quality of life, happiness and enjoyment for life going up. It’s important to keep your inner child, so many people lose it.”

Her hard work and passion don’t go unnoticed around Oregon State. “Chloe has always been willing to step up and help out in all that she does,” says Megan. “Her work with the DAID project has been invaluable. Chloe connects with the participants in the program and she offers a welcoming environment for the entire family.”

Chloe aspires to obtain her PhD in Kinesiology at Oregon State and then become a professor. She says that higher education needs leaders like herself – who despite some bumps in the road – were able to rise above and meet challenges head on and pursue their dreams and passions.

“As someone who could have been diagnosed with a disability, I want to be in academia because it’s not built for students with disabilities and I want to work to change that,” she says.

Calling all qualified kids and canines! 

The DAID project is recruiting its next cohort of participants for winter and spring camps. If you or someone you know has a family dog and a child between the ages of 10-17 with a developmental disability and are interested in participating in the project, you’re encouraged to contact either Megan MacDonald or Monique Udell.