Delighted students read to therapy dog
As soon as the first grader read the last sentence of her new book, she stood up and began dancing. It was a victory dance: As she spun around, she announced that she was celebrating her first time reading a book cover to cover without interruption. She hugged her reading partner, who in turn wagged her tail.
The young girl‘s reading companion was Maggie, an English Pointer mix and highly-trained therapy dog. Maggie’s handler, Ruth Olsen, introduced the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program to Georgetown three years ago when she and her husband ditched Minnesota’s cold winters for Sun City’s warmer community. R.E.A.D. (pronounced “read”) gives elementary-aged students the opportunity to practice their literary and communication skills by reading to a “captive” canine audience. The program also motivates young students to pursue reading and encourages confidence when reading aloud.
Ruth first learned about R.E.A.D. while on a charity walk with the local humane society in Minneapolis. Ruth and Maggie had only recently passed therapy pet training with Pet Partners. The woman walking beside noticed the Pet Partner symbol, a small paw print engraved on Maggie’s ID badge, and asked, “Does she R.E.A.D.?” Ruth remembers telling her, “Well, Maggie’s pretty smart, but I haven’t seen her read yet!” It was then that Ruth and Maggie discovered R.E.A.D. They began their classroom training soon thereafter.
To become a R.E.A.D. companion, pets are required to first train and then pass an evaluation in order to be registered with an animal-assisted therapy organization, like Pet Partners. Then, both pets and handlers must successfully pass specific trainings, workshops, and evaluations with R.E.A.D. to ensure they know the required rules and regulations, as well as how to handle unfamiliar situations and environments. Ruth says, “It’s more than being good with people, the dog has to have solid obedience skills, and it has to really be aware of what’s going on. We call it ‘bulletproof.’”
During reading time, the dog relaxes on a blanket near its handler, while the student reads aloud from an age-level appropriate book. All of the R.E.A.D. students leave with one of the dogs’ business cards, a bone-shaped bookmark with the dog’s picture on it, and an autographed book that the kids sign.
When Ruth first landed in Sun City, she was surprised that she brought the community’s only known therapy dog with her. Determined to share her knowledge with other pet owners, Ruth joined the Sun City Pet Club and spent many hours researching training skills and strategies and earning credentials so that she would be comfortable offering dog training. Ruth says, “I was thinking three people would show up, but sixty people came to that first meeting—I almost ran out the door!”
Ruth explained the concept of therapy dogs to the meeting guests and was amazed at the enthusiasm she received. She has since taught numerous classes for dogs and handlers of all levels through her 6 Paws training business. While not every pet is suited to work in a therapy role, Ruth believes that even the most basic therapy training is more beneficial than just obedience training. She says, “The ultimate training is to get that human and dog connection; they have to know each other.”
Today, Ruth is the Sun City Pet Club Therapy and R.E.A.D Team Coordinator; the club now has more than thirty therapy dogs, including more than sixteen reading dogs. Georgetown’s library, Frost Elementary, and McCoy Elementary have enthusiastically welcomed these talented four-legged friends, and the delighted students look forward to their biweekly visits. Ruth is the first to say that dogs make us better people. Turns out they can also make us better readers!
To learn more about the R.E.A.D. Team and becoming a Pet Partner, contact Ruth at firstname.lastname@example.org.