By Claire Harlin
Starting this fall, special needs students attending the Del Mar Union School District will benefit from a new learning tool — a furry, four-legged one.
Melissa Buckley, an occupational therapist who works with preschool and K-6 kids, will be traveling from school to school accompanied by Mr. T, a yellow Labrador retriever who graduated on Aug. 12 from Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) assistance dog program in Oceanside. Buckley, a Solana Beach resident, works with kids in the district’s special education program who qualify for occupational therapy. Mr. T, short for his given name, “Teal,” will come into contact with 50 to 60 students per week, with diagnoses including learning disorders, attention deficit disorders, cerebral palsy, speech delay and many more.
“Having Mr. T will help with motivation and retention of skills. Having a dog around, kids will meet their goals faster,” said Buckley, who was on a waiting list for a year and went through an extensive interview and training process before being handed the leash.
Buckley said she has been interested in getting a service dog ever since she was in graduate school in Northern California. While observing a rehab center in Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, she said she met a therapist who had a service dog named Alma.
“I saw the impact a dog had on patients and I knew then that I had to have a dog,” said Buckley. “Everyone’s face would light up when Alma came in. Having her really worked.”
Buckley’s therapy involves often challenging one-on-one work outside the regular classroom, so having Mr. T will serve to help kids look forward to their treatment sessions. She said Mr. T will also uplift kids and help them overcome social challenges.
“Sometimes they don’t want to stick out or be taken from the class,” she said. “It’s really hard for them.”
Mr. T was raised in Colorado Springs by one of CCI’s many volunteer puppy raisers, and he was trained in Oceanside. CCI’s Oceanside facility has four graduations a year, and on Aug. 12 the organization gave diplomas to about 20 dogs, which were handed over to their lifelong companions at the event.
Matt Cleland, a 16-year-old muscular dystrophy patient, came all the way from Michigan to be united with Byrd, a black Labrador retriever who will assist him by opening doors and picking up dropped objects.
“He’s going to be a great companion,” said Cleland. “I’ve been waiting for a dog for three years, so this is a great day for me.”
Alfredo Iglesias of Encinitas said he never knew how smart dogs could be until he met Jobin, his new service companion.
Alfredo suffered a spinal cord injury in 2008 while on his honeymoon in Mexico. He relocated to North County from Miami to be part of Project Walk, a Carlsbad recovery program he hopes will put him on foot again. Jobin is trained to help Alfredo with a number of tasks, including crawling into his lap to push him back into his wheelchair if he falls forward.
“I’m absolutely blessed to have Jobin,” Alfredo said. “Just in the past week that we’ve been training I can’t believe the independence I’ve gained.”
For information on the Alfredo Iglesias Foundation, visit
- For information on CCI, visit