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.
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.”
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.