By Karen Luker
After having worked as a teacher for 30 years, Bruce Patterson is saying a final goodbye to his Grade 1-2 students at Arklan Public School in Carleton Place. As retirement looms, he reflects on the multitude of memories he will take with him. According to Patterson, one of the highlights of his last four years at Arklan has been his relationship with Ottawa Therapy Dogs.
Every Wednesday morning, Golden Retriever Scotch and his handler, Beth McKibbin, enter Patterson’s classroom for a brief question and answer period, followed by four individual reading sessions with children who have been chosen ahead of time. While reading to a dog has been shown to help struggling readers, Patterson shares Scotch’s precious time with all of his students.
“I never realized the positive impact that having a dog around can have on kids in such a short time: they want to be at school, they want to be around the dog”, states Patterson, who signed up for the program the moment his principal proposed it. “There is no judgement and he brings out the best in everyone, including kindness and acceptance. It’s the highlight of our week.”
Scotch had some big paws to fill. His predecessor, Myko – also McKibbin’s dog – passed away suddenly at age nine while an active volunteer at the school. To say the students were devastated is an understatement. “Myko was one of the kids as far as he was concerned. And they just adored him”, states McKibbin.
McKibbin credits Patterson and the children with helping her through her grief. Patterson sets up a memorial every year for the children to mark the anniversary of Myko’s passing, to remember and celebrate one of the best classroom helpers they ever had. Patterson feels this has been a good life lesson for the kids, one that also made him realize just how quickly and deeply the children’s lives were touched by Myko.
In the meantime, everyone waited with eager anticipation while Scotch was being evaluated for his potential to become a therapy dog. Patterson and the students celebrated his success and welcomed him with open arms when he arrived. Scotch is now a weekly visitor to the school, and the kids couldn’t be more thrilled.
When the Grade 1-2 kids were asked what they thought of Scotch, the compliments poured in: “he is cute, awesome, special, a good listener, wonderful, and smart. I like how soft you are, that you are gentle, and that you listen to me.”
Bruce Patterson & his Grade 1-2 students pose for a farewell photo with Scotch, the Golden Retriever and Beth McKibbin, his Ottawa Therapy Dogs handler.
While Patterson agrees with the students’ assessment, he has a deeper understanding of the impact the dogs have had. He shares that the benefits go way beyond fostering the children’s love of reading. In the presence of the therapy dog and volunteer, children open up about what is going on in their own lives. He recognizes Scotch’s contribution, but quickly points to McKibbin as having a genuine interest in each and every child. “She’s truly an exceptional volunteer”, he says. “She really wants to know how to best meet their needs and how the program is helping them. She also takes a special interest in children with exceptionalities, going out of her way to make a connection with them.”
McKibbin also recognizes the many benefits of the program. “While I love seeing how the kids build their confidence with reading, I’m surprised by how they just open up and say anything and everything to me in the presence of the dog. It blows me away how relaxed the children feel.” McKibbin recalls a child sharing information about a dangerous situation at home. With Patterson and the school’s help, the child and his family were connected with critical community resources.
With Patterson now retiring, Scotch will add to his responsibilities: helping to ensure a smooth transition by teaching his replacement the ropes. And there’s more to this success story – McKibbin is now readying Mungo, her third Golden Retriever, to become a therapy dog. While he won’t get to know Bruce Patterson, the staff of Arklan Public School will no doubt find a place for him!
Karen Luker has been a member of Ottawa Therapy Dogs since 2006. Currently an associate member, she visited the Bruyère Continuing Care Palliative Care Unit weekly for eight years with her miniature dachshund, Gogo. She is also the author of “Un chien dans ma chambre? La médiation animale en soins palliatifs”, published in Ces animaux qui aiment autrement (2015), a book on the many benefits of the animal-human bond.