Student Features

Erie student’s goal is training therapy dogs

Nov 6, 2013

When a young man commits to the task of training a pooch to be a certified therapy dog or companion dog, it cuts into his spare time. When it's time for that dog move on to its new home, it cuts into his heart.

A PA Cyber Charter School eighth grader from North East Township near Erie, Nolan Beardsley has been helping train not just one, but three standard poodles to become therapy or companion dogs.

One dog is Pepper, age 1 year. The two others are named Starsky and Hutch after the old TV series. They are not litter mates, but are the same age: 5 months.

"Pepper is my dog," said Nolan. "Starsky and Hutch are being trained to live with autistic children. They are being fostered between three different families on a rotation here locally."

The nonprofit agency Therapy Dogs United provided Starsky and Hutch, coordinated their training and placement, and paid costs including food, veterinary care and grooming.

Nolan works under the supervision of Tammy Baker, a volunteer trainer and evaluator for Therapy Dogs United. She has five therapy dogs of her own and operates a cage-free kennel.

"It's hard to get young people or even adults to take dog training seriously. It takes a lot of time and dedication," Baker said.

"Nolan listens and follows directions. I have been very impressed with the effort he has put into training his dog. It was exciting to see his drive. Nolan has really taken to this, seeking more information. He and his whole family are learning."

Nolan has been so much help in the entire project that Baker said, "I don't know how we could do without him."

Nolan said training does take a lot of his spare time, but he has more spare time than most young people because going to school with PA Cyber helps him use his time more efficiently.

He also finds time to umpire youth baseball games, do small odd jobs for neighbors, mentor at two children's groups each week during gym time, and help his dad tend their beehives.

More spare time was not, however, what motivated Amy and Brian Beardsley to choose PA Cyber for Nolan and their other son, Neil. They found that PA Cyber is flexible enough to fit their two sons' very different learning styles, and works better for them at this time than traditional homeschooling.

"Nolan is a very structured and self-motivated student," said his mom. "He is driven to get his assignments done so that he can fit in other things in his life. He has all virtual classes. Self -paced instruction was not a good fit for him. He prefers the interaction with peers and teachers.

"Neil is a special needs guy. PA Cyber's virtual classes can be scheduled to be spaced how Neil can regulate himself best. The classes then let him focus without the distractions of a brick-and-mortar classroom full of things that would sidetrack him in his studies - plus not having such a long day, which wears on his fragile health. PA Cyber's self-paced curriculum may be something we consider as his needs change. It is nice to have that option. The special education department is very good to work with and very accommodating to our needs."

Also, she said, "We make sure the boys get out into social settings with people of all ages; this makes them very well-rounded and develops their confidence in themselves."

Nolan said his dad used to have poodles, and getting the large standard breed was something the family had wanted to do. Training them to be therapy dogs, however, was something new for the family.

Therapy dogs "aren't allowed to growl or show any aggression," said Nolan. "They can't bark, they can't stress out, they have to be friendly and outgoing, have to be able to meet people on crutches and walkers, and in wheelchairs, and not freak out when their handler leaves the room."

The Beardsley family has other pets, including cats and chickens, that helped teach dogs not to react badly to other animals.

Nolan said it may be tough to say goodbye to Starsky and Hutch when the time comes for them to move on in their careers as companion dogs. Hutch will be placed at an autistic group home in North Dakota. Starsky will live with a local area family that has a child on the autism spectrum.

Training them and Pepper has been a positive experience for Nolan and his family, so likely these are the first in a long line of dogs in training who will pass through the Beardsley household.

Therapy dog training may help guide Nolan to his eventual career.

"I would like to join an armed forces or police K9 unit, or be a park ranger," he said.

About PA Cyber

Serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade, the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (PA Cyber) is one of the largest, most experienced, and most successful online public schools in the nation. PA Cyber's online learning environments, personalized instructional methods, and choices of curricula connect Pennsylvania students and their families with state-certified and highly-qualified teachers, and rich academic content that is aligned to state standards. Founded in 2000, PA Cyber is headquartered in Midland (Beaver County) and maintains a network of support offices throughout the state. As a public school, PA Cyber is open for enrollment by any school-age child residing in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and does not charge tuition to students or families.