Harbison West Elementary School kicked off Exceptional Students Week with a visit from Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services (PAALS) on April 4.

The annual event celebrates children and youth with exceptionalities and the professionals who serve them. PAALS Instructor Maureen Leary spoke with preschool through second grade students about the importance of assistance dogs and how their organization works with those that need their services.

“The more people know about service dogs, the more they know about the etiquette surrounding them and what the dog is actually doing,” Leary said. “For example, we have been out on a training session before and an adult will love on the dog, and their child will stop them and say you are not supposed to touch the dog because they are working. It is just phenomenal to see how much the students learn after our visit with them.”

Leary shared with the students about Sarge, the two-year-old Labrador retriever who will soon be paired with someone in need for the rest of his life. With the direction of Leary, Sarge put his behavior skills on display to the amazement of students. Sarge responded to different hand signals from Leary, a key training initiative because the person Sarge may be paired with could struggle with speaking. Leary also had Sarge use his nose to turn on a light switch and retrieve items, such as a medicine bottle on the ground.

“Bringing this awareness to our students to show all of the opportunities and services that are out there for people with exceptionalities such as autism is so important for our young students to see,” said Harbison West Elementary preschool teacher Beth Reilly. “This opens their minds to differing abilities and shows them that everyone is different, but we can all accept one another despite those differences.”

PAALS was founded in 2007, and their mission is committed to enriching and empowering children and adults with physical disabilities and social needs by training service animals and providing animal-assisted educational recreational activities. The nonprofit organization places service dogs in all of South Carolina and areas of contiguous states located within 230 miles of Columbia.