"Weave! Jump! Tunnel!"
Kindergartner Alec Mitchell ran through the cafeteria to keep up with a therapy dog named Maggie, laughing and smiling as he yelled out commands.
His mom, Berni Mitchell of Galena, said this is the Alec she sees at home: confident and outgoing. She said he's been a little shy, however, around classmates at Johnnycake Corners Elementary School in the Olentangy Local School District.
Mitchell brought her son to a session with therapy dogs trained by Agility Ability on March 24 to give him a little confidence boost.
"We thought this would be a good opportunity for him to have something to talk with his classmates about," she said.
Similarly, the Agility Ability program started with a mother looking for a way to help her child.
Berlin Township resident Connie Will said she got the idea for the program after she took her daughter, Avery, to visit a friend who trained dogs in agility. The friend called out to Avery, who has cognitive delays, and asked her to start running along the course to guide the dog.
"I'd never seen that type of pride and confidence and joy come from her before, ever," Will said. "When I saw that, I asked if anyone was doing this with special-needs kids."
Will said she was told there were dog agility programs for disabled adults and seniors, but no one was sure if anyone had tailored the sport to children with special needs. So she co-founded the nonprofit Agility Ability, quickly gathering a team of volunteer handlers in 2011.
She said the sport of agility already was established and just needed a few tweaks before it was ready for children.
"The dogs motivated the kids, and the kids wanted to be around the dogs," she said. "It really was an easy transition."
Will said it soon became clear to her that the program could be an effective tool for a variety of children -- from those on the autism spectrum to those with speech or anxiety issues. She said the program offers a variety of benefits, from confidence and self-esteem to exercise.
"This was something that got them up and running and playing and interactive," she said. "They were socializing with dogs and handlers and other kids."
At the school sessions, three or four students are paired with three or four dogs so neither group gets overwhelmed. Volunteer handlers help the children guide the dogs over and through obstacles such as hurdles, weave poles and tunnels.
Agility Ability co-founder Cindy Warren said the dogs the group takes to schools are "bomb-proof" dogs, meaning they are not upset by rough petting from students or the activity of other dogs.
All of the dogs are certified therapy dogs that also are trained in agility.
"They have to be very in tune with their handlers," Warren said.
Will said parents have told them that even children with motivation issues are excited to connect with their canine companions.
"Some are saying, 'Wake me up in the morning. ... Don't forget, Mommy, I want to go to Agility Ability,' " she said. "That's a great motivation for the parents because a lot of parents, including me, drag (their) child out of bed."
Mitchell said guiding the agility dogs through the obstacle course was a welcome break in the school day for her son.
"It's nice to just have that moment to (reflect) and feel that you've had that success for the day," she said.
Johnnycake Corners teacher Krista Hyme said Monday's session was Agility Ability's second at the school. She said the school has had a therapy-dog program for students struggling with reading for several years.
Hyme said a PTO fundraiser collected enough money for three Agility Ability sessions this school year and three next school year. She said she would not be surprised if interest in the program, and possibly the number of sessions, continues to grow.
"I think it's much like the reading dogs," she said. "It was really small to start with, but then word starts to spread."
Will said she hopes to take the program to other agility-training facilities in central Ohio and have them adopt it and share it with kids. She said her group also is looking for large buildings to rent for holding Agility Ability sessions throughout the region.
Currently, classes and individual sessions are held in the Agility and Rally for Fun!, or ARF, Dog Training Center on Morrison Road in Gahanna. Will said if other facility owners volunteered their space for the program, residents would not have to drive from all over Delaware and Franklin counties to Gahanna in taking their children to a session.
Agility Ability handlers have visited other Olentangy schools as well as Gahanna-Jefferson schools for special sessions, and are in talks to expand to other local districts, including Dublin schools.
Warren said she hopes the program continues to draw in volunteers and supporters so it can grow and reach more children. She said watching children grow in confidence around the dogs makes all the hard work worthwhile.
"It's kind of the magic of dogs," she said. "They can really bring out the best in people."
Parents or educators who want to learn how to get their children involved in the Agility Ability program may visit agilityability.org.