• Harris Middle School Principal Michael Tountasakis watches as seventh-grader Ian Burleson pets the school’s comfort dog, Ruby. Burleson’s bond with Ruby helped him become a National Ambassador for the Mutt-i-grees program. (Submitted photo)
    Harris Middle School Principal Michael Tountasakis watches as seventh-grader Ian Burleson pets the school’s comfort dog, Ruby. Burleson’s bond with Ruby helped him become a National Ambassador for the Mutt-i-grees program. (Submitted photo)

A boy and his dog

Ian Burleson chosen as National Ambassador for Mutt-i-grees program

There are few bonds more special than the one between a boy and his dog.

Although Ruby, the comfort dog at Harris Middle School, may not belong to 12-year-old seventh-grader Ian Burleson, that did not hinder the formation of a strong bond. So strong Burleson has been selected as one of 16 National Student Ambassadors to represent the Mutt-i-grees curriculum, which uses the natural affinity between children and pets to teach social-emotional learning skills such as empathy, self-confidence, teamwork and decision-making.

Burleson has autism and is prone to having meltdowns. It is during this time Ruby springs into action.

“The dog knows him and comes up to him,” said Faye Edwards, Burleson’s great aunt and guardian since he was 4 years old. “When he’s having a meltdown, he gets sent to the dog, and she has a remarkable calming effect on him. It’s truly amazing.”

Burleson’s nomination was sponsored by Harris Middle School Principal Michael Tountasakis and exceptional child instructor Regan Mimken. He was selected from thousands of nominees and will receive a $500 honorarium, which is sent to the school for activities, materials and other expenses incurred from comfort dog advocacy efforts.

“Ian has been able to overcome many challenges that come along with autism, as well as build on his strengths (because of Ruby),” Tountasakis and Mimken wrote in the nomination letter. “Ian, like many people with autism, can have increased anxiety throughout the day from many factors we can’t predict or understand. During these moments, frustration can build and block parts of the brain used for learning and processing.”

Tountasakis and Mimken said it was difficult to reduce those anxieties and bring Burleson back to a learning state in the past, but this year has been much different because of Ruby.

“When Ian is feeling overly anxious, he lets a teacher know and advocates for himself by spending time with Ruby,” Tountasakis and Mimken wrote. “Within minutes of being near her, it becomes obvious he is more relaxed, frustrations and possible meltdowns are de-escalated, and the amount of time it takes to get him back into a state of learning and processing is cut in half.”

Ruby also provides opportunities for Burleson to improve his social skills, an area where people with autism often struggle. Burleson’s social skills have grown “tremendously” since the start of this school year, Tountasakis and Mimken said, as he often assists with walking Ruby around the school and into classrooms.

“During this time, Ian feels comfortable and proud enough to explain to other students and staff any information they need to know about her,” they wrote. “He will voluntarily explain her mood or what steps to take to be safe around her. He is stepping out of his comfort zone, looking people in the eyes and becoming much more social than he’s ever been.”

Burleson wrote a student statement that was included in his nomination packet. 

“Ruby is rewarding and makes me comfortable,” Burleson wrote. “I love helping out with her whenever I can. Ruby really does help me out a lot, as I help with her. And, I am glad she loves me, too.”

The MItchell News

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