By Karen Luker
For the past 6 years, Mireille Pitre has entered the doors of Le Transit school on Wednesdays during her lunch hour. Le Transit is a specialized francophone school which provides both teaching and clinical intervention to children who have special learning and/or behavioural needs. Programs are developed and delivered in partnership with many health and social service agencies in the National Capital Region. Most of the students attend for a few years and then reintegrate into their neighbourhood school.
What makes Mireille’s presence unique is that she is accompanied by her fluffy, blue-eyed companion, Loki. Pitre recounts falling into her role as a volunteer when she overheard a family member talking about Ottawa Therapy Dogs. Pitre recognized Loki’s calm demeanour from the time he was a puppy, and enjoyed his presence as she devoured countless books in her spare time. The Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program, in her opinion, would be the perfect marriage of two of her greatest loves.
And so it came to be that Loki was introduced to the children of Le Transit. Although Mireille had not been around children much prior, she learned that she could connect with them almost effortlessly through Loki. “I learn about how the children learn simply by watching them interact with the dog. Loki helps me figure out what motivates them”, states Pitre.
Loki is always up for the challenge. He selects a book from an array by placing his paw on one when he hears “choisis” (choose). At times, Loki decides he’d rather roll onto the book collection. Laughter ensues, and the kids are hooked.
Pitre works closely with Johanne Beauregard, a teacher at the school. Beauregard is part of a multi-disciplinary team who constantly seeks methods through which to engage and encourage the students. “It’s a brilliant idea”, says Beauregard. “The program goes way beyond simply helping the kids with their reading. They come out of their shell; they feel more confident. The students also feel safe, relaxed and at peace during the time they spend with Loki”.
Both Pitre and Beauregard also describe the impact that Loki has had on students who are fearful of dogs in general. Despite their apprehension, many children ask to attend a R.E.A.D. session because it’s one of the most popular activities offered by the school. Loki and his handler have obliged by providing gradual exposure to the dog in a controlled, predictable environment. Success stories abound.
Loki, despite not being able to understand (or read!) much French, interacts with the students on a whole different level. In his case, one might say it’s all about the language of love.
Beauregard recalls a student who was severely withdrawn both in and out of the classroom. In Loki’s presence, the child attended each reading session with enthusiasm and a smile. Reading became fun and the student blossomed.
Pitre shares her astonishment with the progress the children make as well. “To see a child who can’t read at all, who isn’t motivated to read, tell me he read a book to his dog on the weekend, that’s priceless”, says Pitre.
Pitre’s own love for the program has inspired her to ensure Loki’s legacy lives on. She is now raising Atlas, who is meant to take over when Loki retires. In the meantime, Loki has another job – ensuring Atlas learns as much as he can from him in preparation for his own turn as a therapy dog. If Pitre and Beauregard have anything to do with it, the school’s students can look forward to many years of support and success.
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 8 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.