Paws for Reflection is offering a new service in Ellis County after hiring a new therapeutic riding instructor who doubles as a child development specialist.

This ranch serves to partner humans with animals to heal the mind, body, and soul. Its services provide healing, educational, motivational and recreational environment utilizing equine and other animal-assisted therapies to enhance the quality of their clients’ lives.

Founder and President of PAWS, Melode Seremet, said having Cassandra Porter on the team has answered another area where PAWS needs assistance.

“The ranch is very God driven and managed so not a lot of it is in our hands. So for Cassandra to come in as a new team member, it was more like oh, this is what she brings and we have a niche for that, that we can create,” Seremet said.

Porter graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor's of Science in psychology and a minor in biology. She recently graduated with her masters in human development and early childhood disorders from the University of Texas at Dallas.

Porter said she has always had a passion for animals and has worked with children her whole life. While in school, she interned at Brian House, working with child development activities and interventions. There, she worked with children ranging from birth to kindergarten.

“Kids should be meeting certain milestones when they grow up,” Porter said. “Everything from plants to animals has to develop from its beginning to its adulthood and humans are probably the most complex because of physiological and social needs.”

Her job is to decide whether there is some sort of delay by using tools she’s certified to use in assessments. From there, she will develop a plan of intervention based on the outcome of the assessment.

In the child development program at PAWS, Porter assesses children ranging from birth to about six years old, primarily focusing on the first three years. She has extended the age of children she works with because she believes that even though the beginning years are critical, development in a child is continuous.

Porter assesses a child’s fine motor skills, gross motor skills, adaptive skills, cognitive skills, as well as emotional and behavioral issues. She also works with speech and language.

“I’m not a speech therapist, but there are certain things I can do to help encourage appropriate speech in infants, toddlers, and preschoolers,” Porter explained.

Working with children at the ranch is the ideal location for Porter. She said it’s a more productive environment for people to learn and grow because it is a natural environment, not just an office.

“This has been studied many times, especially recently and we know in a natural environment you tend to have more progress in any area. [...] It’s because the person is more comfortable, they are in a more optimal state for learning and growing,” Porter explained.

Porter works with the younger children in the Critter Cabin, which houses rabbits, chinchillas, and hedgehogs. She uses these critters to connect with help her clients while working on themselves.

“There’s a lot of empirical evidence out there at the moment,” Porter said. “So what I do is, I use evidence-based practices that other professionals have come up as far as how to deal with some of these things. I incorporate the animals as a third party in that situation and time on the child development side.”

For example, if a child was assessed lacking gross and fine motor skills, Porter will have the child build a small city with blocks. Doing this, the child is advancing his or her gross motor skills by placing blocks above his or her head; also, the fine motor skills are working by the child manipulating the smaller blocks. Then, the hedgehog, Phoebe, gets to run around the city the child built.

“For that two-year-old, that’s amazing to have a living, four-legged animal that they don’t get to see all the time and it [serves as] motivation,” Porter explained.

One of Porter’s favorite activities to do with a child struggling with crawling skills is to put the hedgehog or chinchilla in a ball and have the child chase after the critter.

When a child in therapy is around the age of four, he or she will graduate to horseback riding to further their education. This allows the client to be engaged in interactive activities to better the skills they are improving.

Porter was born with a passion for animals and has always sought out opportunities to work with them. But growing up, she suffered from adversity going through reconstructive skull surgery and living with turrets her whole life. Through her experiences, she said she could better relate to children who are struggling.