In a speech therapy room at Florida Hospital, 4-year-old Dominic Cleffi is making great progress. On this day in August, he says “ice cream.”
“That's the first time you've said that, bud!” exclaims speech pathologist Anastasia Campo.
Dominic has autism and communication is a challenge.
"He's very, very smart. Through the therapy we've learned that," says Dominic’s mom, Aimee Cleffi.
There’s someone very special at Florida Hospital Celebration who’s helped Dominic’s therapy along—a German shepherd named Luke.
"I haven't really had any other patients that have clicked the way Dominic has with Luke," says Campo, who introduced Luke to Dominic about a year ago.
More and more studies—including one published in July by researchers at Purdue University—show that animals can help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder become less anxious and develop better social skills.
Campo says that seems to the case for Dominic and Luke’s calming presence has helped move speech therapy along.
“Luke is used not only as a therapy dog to help calm Dominic, but also to get him more integrated into our therapy and to be more excited to be part of our sessions. And it works,” Campo explains.
Campo uses Luke to help Dominic learn to recognize and say body parts.
“Those are things that Domenic was not willing to work with me on in the beginning," she says.
Luke’s handler, Florida Hospital volunteer Joyce Colin, thinks the dog knows that in moments of frustration Dominic needs him.
She remembers a time when Dominic was acting out.
"Dominic just jumped up in the air and came down on Luke's tail, and Luke just turned around and licked his hand. It was like 'It's OK, bud,'" Colin recalls.
Aimee Cleffi tells FOX 35 that when Dominic met Luke he was at the development level of an 18-month-old.
Dominic will be assessed again soon.
“The therapist that took the test originally said that he's definitely surpassed the 18 month old and he’s getting a lot closer to the 4 year old," Aimee reports.
Even without the test it’s clear to those who know him that Dominic has come a long way.
"He's talking now and he wasn't doing that in January! That's amazing!" Campo says.
The Cleffi family is raising money to bring a therapy dog into their home full-time. If you’d like to learn about their efforts and contribute to their cause, click here.
Florida Hospital has 25 pet therapy teams. They work with patients with all kinds of disabilities.
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