Tag

reading

Books, Baths & Beyond

By | In the community

by Karen Luker

“It’s time for school!”  When Lily hears her mother say these words, she begrudgingly heads down the stairs to the laundry tub.  Her sister Daisy recognizes the routine, and positions herself in front of the door in the hopes that she might get to go as well.  But sixteen-year-old Daisy can only watch with envy as her sister, 13-year-old Lily, goes through her regular grooming routine in preparation for her favourite day of the week.  Although she doesn’t like her bath, Lily does enjoy the one-on-one attention provided by her mom, Mary Jane, and the excitement of attending local schools and libraries in her role as an Ottawa Therapy Dog.

Mary Jane Maffini is a former librarian turned mystery novelist.  When she isn’t accepting awards or attending conferences, Mary Jane is mom to her two loving dachshunds, Lily and Daisy.  She is also the leader of a one-woman-one-canine team of visitors to local schools and libraries, where she helps children develop their reading and other skills.

dachsund therapy dog reading with young girl

• Kaiya is all smiles after having finished her reading session with Lily at Berrigan Public School.

Mary Jane has been a volunteer with Ottawa Therapy Dogs for more than 10 years.  While Daisy is now retired, Lily continues to be a regular visitor in the Ottawa area.  For four years, she attended Berrigan Public School, where she helped up to four children with their reading every week.

Mary Jane refers to herself as “an invisible handler”.  By this, she means that students focus on her dogs, forgetting there is a human at the end of the leash who provides the support.  Kids are so excited to be chosen to participate in the program that they burst with excitement whenever they are asked to leave the classroom for their “remedial” session.

There are other ways that Berrigan students have learned from Daisy and Lily which extend beyond reading.  Some children who have been raised to fear dogs have gradually developed an appreciation for the human-animal bond.  Their parents have as well.  For example, some children were able to sit with Mary Jane and her companion, but not touch the dog.  Gradually, families have come to recognize and accept that touching a dog can be a safe and beneficial experience.

Mary Jane emphasizes the importance of encouraging children to develop a joy of reading.  Sometimes, it’s not about the mechanics of decoding a word or answering a question about a story correctly; it can be the simple act of laughing together about something silly a character has done, or sharing thoughts about a great illustration (think of Snoopy crying!)  As Mary Jane puts it, “The joy of books hasn’t come to those children yet, and Lily helps.  Many kids who have trouble reading just don’t have that joy.  Because being with a dog is a pleasurable experience, Lily can help be the bridge.”

Mary Jane recalls an 8-year-old student who was new to Canada.  Although he could sound out any word, he did not have the knowledge of English he needed to understand most of what he was reading.  Mary Jane set up a familiar scenario whereby Lily didn’t understand either, and together, Mary Jane and the student figured out the vocabulary and the sentence structure required for “Lily” to learn.  Mary Jane sums it up best, stating, “The students all get what I’m trying to do through the dog, but they just play along.  Teaching the dog gives them a purpose and takes the spotlight off them needing the help.  They can relax, and they are thrilled when I tell them Lily thinks they are helping her.”

two dachsund therapy dogs wearing scarves

Daisy and Lily don their scarves for their visits.

Being a dachshund, Lily isn’t shy about expressing her likes and dislikes.  She has favourite stories, including Ten Little Hot Dogs.  The book contains predictable, repetitive vocabulary – a safe endeavour for many struggling readers.  Thanks to his practice with Lily and Mary Jane, one grade one student increased his confidence in reading aloud, earning himself a personal copy of the book.  When Mary Jane subsequently asked him if he had read the book to his mother, the boy grinned and proudly told her that he had read it to his entire class.

These are the experiences that make Ottawa Therapy Dog volunteers return to their assignments over and over again.  Dogs such as Lily and Daisy are simply “props”, a foot in the door, a key to unlocking a treasure of enjoyment and learning.

And it isn’t just the students who benefit from their time with the dogs.  School teachers, staff and the principal always make a point of coming out to talk to Lily.  “That’s okay,” says Mary Jane, “I have my own friends.”

Author’s note:  Shortly after this article was written, Daisy passed away and Lily took a well-deserved retirement.  The article has been kept in its original form as a tribute to these hard-working gals.

 

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.

Reading goes to the Dogs!

By | In the community

by Judy Beltzner

For those of us who learned to read with Dick, Jane and their adorable dog, Spot, reading and dogs have always had a positive association. But back then, the idea of encouraging children to read with dogs to improve their reading skills was not yet on anyone’s radar. That changed for children in the National Capital Region in 2004 with the introduction of the Reading Education Assistance Dogs® (R.E.A.D.®) program under the umbrella of Ottawa Therapy Dogs.

Chantel Hutter and her Spaniel/Sheltie mix, Chelsea, were already a team with Ottawa Therapy Dogs when she came across Intermountain Therapy Animals and R.E.A.D. in the news. Chantel instantly knew that this was what she and Chelsea were meant to do, and after obtaining permission from the Western Quebec School Board for a pilot program, they soon became the first Canadian R.E.A.D. team. Chantel later qualified as a R.E.A.D. instructor through Intermountain Therapy Dogs in Utah and was instrumental in developing Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ R.E.A.D. program which currently has over 15 volunteer R.E.A.D. teams in local schools and libraries.

Sylvie Martel, who was a R.E.A.D. team with her previous Golden Retriever, Moxie, coordinates Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ library programs and often helps run the evaluations where therapy dogs and their handlers are tested for the
R.E.A.D. program to see if they qualify to work with children – an extra level of testing in the career of a therapy dog team. These therapy dogs in particular need a special kind of calm, relaxed temperament so they are comfortable in a busy school environment which can often be noisy and chaotic. And even though many therapy dogs enjoy visiting room-to-room in hospitals, not all of them like to sit or lie still for long periods of times like Reading Education Assistance Dogs, who truly enjoy their time curling up with children and books and being read to with lots of hugs and petting. 

Tara (Rosemary Chisholm) settles in for a story and some cuddle time with a young reader at the Centennial branch (OPL).
Photo credit: Brittany Veinot, www.PhoDOGapher.ca.

Rosemary Chisholm and her Golden Retriever, Tara, are familiar faces at the Centennial branch of the Ottawa Public Library as well as the Chelsea Library. Tara is always a huge hit with the children and it isn’t unusual for her to dress up for the occasion. In fact, her ‘regular readers’ will often arrived dressed up to read to her, too – like the princesses or heroes in the stories they enjoy. Andrea Gowing in Children’s Programs at Centennial is a very enthusiastic supporter of the R.E.A.D. program – perhaps because she herself struggled with reading as a child and has seen firsthand what therapy dogs can do. Dogs, she says, “lower blood pressure and are a calming influence … they don’t care about mistakes!” Their gentle, non-judgmental interaction with the children who read to them is what makes R.E.A.D. such a powerful program.

Handlers in OTD’s R.E.A.D. program are committed to improving literacy skills (in fact, several handlers have been teachers themselves) and are able to engage and communicate with the children at their level. The emphasis is on nurturing a connection between the child and the dog without the stress and pressure of being put on the spot. Any reading guidance from the handlers is given in the context of reading with the dog, such as “Tara doesn’t understand the word
‘tomorrow’ so let’s sound it out for her.”

Roxy (Alix Ranger) from Ottawa Therapy Dogs is a special reading companion for children at the Ruth E. Dickinson branch (OPL).

The program has also helped some children overcome their fear of dogs. Alix Ranger and her Boxer/Rottweiler mix, aptly named Roxy, is another of OTD’s ‘library dogs’ who visit the Ruth E. Dickinson library once a month for a weekend R.E.A.D. program. Alix has special memories of a young boy who was clearly afraid of Roxy at first and sat as far away as he could with his book. Over time, however, he started to come closer and closer, although he still approached Roxy from the tail end instead of where her teeth were! When he finally got up the courage to pet her, he was delighted by how soft she was, how gentle, how sweet – and not only was his fear gone, he didn’t want to leave her!

Parents appreciate the opportunity for their children to read in a warm, welcoming and supportive environment as part of this unique literacy initiative by Ottawa Therapy Dogs. Elizabeth Fosbery, in Children’s Programs at the Ruth E. Dickinson branch, echoes her colleague, Andrea Gowing’s experience with the R.E.A.D. program at Centennial and both librarians also that note the benefits of the program aren’t limited to simply reading — Andrea says that even older children have practised school presentations to the dogs (who wag their tails in approval!). 

Studies by UC Davis, a world leader in cross-disciplinary research at the University of California, found that children who read to a dog for 10 weeks — as students in Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ R.E.A.D. programs in schools do — improved their reading skills by 12 percent (in the first study) and 30 percent (in the second). And that’s not all: “…75 percent of parents reported that their children read aloud more frequently and with greater confidence after the study was completed.”1

The clear conclusion is that while fear of failure — and the embarrassment that may come with it — is human, dogs as reading companions help by just being themselves. They don’t judge, they don’t laugh and they don’t apply any pressure
– and children benefit enormously by reading to a friend who happens to be
overflowing with unconditional love – and covered in fur.

 1 https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/reading-rover-does-it-really-help-children-veterinary-school-says-‘yes’/

Judy Beltzner has been a member of Ottawa Therapy Dogs since 2010. Currently an associate member, Judy is a past Director on Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ Board of Directors and was part of a therapy dog team — with Tigger, her beautiful black lab/golden retriever cross — that also visited CHEO’s Traumatic Care Injury unit several years ago. Tigger was born to be a guide dog and when seizures prevented him from pursuing that career, Judy determined that he could serve people in a different way. He brought much comfort to hospitalized children and their families, and also loved being read to by children at local libraries as part of the Reading Education Assistance Dogs® (R.E.A.D.®) program.