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Dogs help disabled children learn in Fresh Meadows

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Jermarcus, like many of the 400 special education students at Fresh Meadows' PS 177Q, is emotionally disturbed and learning disabled -- two qualities that combined make persuading him to sit down and concentrate on a pages of words an arduous task.That's where Schatzie comes in. When Jermarcus opens a pop-up book, the small dog with shiny redwood fur is sitting beside him ready to listen."It relaxes them, calms them down," Schatzie's owner, Greg Karl, said as Jermarcus read aloud, sitting Indian-style on a blanket a few feet away. "There's no pressure, no teacher watching them, no one judging - just Schatzie."She and fellow canine colleagues like Ping-Pong the Shar-Pei and Lola, a rescue golden retriever, make their weekly visits to the school at 56-37 188th St. as therapeutic dogs for the rambunctious or mentally challenged students, whether it's listening to them read, encouraging them to speak or just walking the hallways to dish out licks and the occasional trick.Their work has made them instant celebrities. When students spotted Schatzie on her way to see Jermarcus one day last week, they fell to their knees, grasped the tiny dog and rolled around in the hallway, oblivious to their surroundings."He literally has 20 hands all over him and he just sits there like this," Karl said, attempting his most sanguine dog expression. Karl began taking his purebreds to schools, senior centers and hospitals about three years ago, after retiring from 32 years of service with the city's Department of Transportation. He had been caring for dogs all his life, he said, so training them to help people - from special education children to the elderly woman with Alzheimer's living alone in Fresh Meadows - seemed a logical next step.Karl, who does most of his business in Long Island, has been coming to PS 177Q for the past eight to nine months. The school's students range from having mild emotional problems and learning delays to being severely emotionally disturbed and mentally retarded, such as having autism. Most are between ages 8 and 14, though autistic students reach up to 21. Veteran teacher Barbara Bennet said many students come from various hospitals while others come from Riker's Island and have parole officers. Some graduate to regular high schools, she said, while others go on to receive occupational and psychiatric therapy. For Jermarcus, who arrived at the school a year ago from Louisiana, the future is uncertain. He is fidgety, easily distracted and prone to non-violent outbursts, often completing a routine of jumping to his feet and pounding his fists into the floor. But with a little nudging from Karl and Bennett, and a lot of assurance from his patient four-legged companion, he gets through the children's book, "Go Wild in New York City," and reaches for "Cat in the Hat."Reach reporter Zach Patberg by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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