Dory was kind enough to let me get up on my soap box today and blog about a very special dog, education AND kid related issue.
The other day Wally mentioned this great article in the LA Times about a Newfy who works with abused, emotionally disturbed and neglected kids. Reading the article made me think about my own experiences with at risk children and dogs. I left a comment for Wally about my Lab Emily and her visits with children at the Head Start program and Wally responded and said his Ma was interested in dogs who help children read, which is an area of interest for me a well.
I think Americans are very accepting of Guide Dogs for the Visually Impaired and Assistance Animals for those who have physical challenges but I honestly don't think that the general public realizes that there are so many other ways that animals can partner with humans.
My one wish is that there was more emphasis on the human/animal connection and more research conducted on the topic of ways that dogs can help support and heal children.
I firmly believe that animals, especially dogs can play a more integral role in working with children in a whole spectrum of ways. As an educator who works in the public sector I am constantly reading, hearing or talking about all kinds of educational approaches for the most medically, developmentally and emotionally fragile students. Unfortunately most of my work colleagues are uninformed and often biased against involving dogs in the educational process.
While my dogs were never formally trained in therapy, they were well schooled in obedience and their personalities and temperaments were a perfect match for the preschoolers I worked with. My first experience with dogs in the educational setting was when my Golden Retriever Lucy would come to visit my classroom when I was teaching hearing impaired 3-5 year olds. There was an immediate rapport between Lucy and the children - even they shyest of my students bloomed and became engaged when Lucy entered the room.My other experience is with my Lab Emily. She went into Head Start classrooms with me and became the unofficial mascot of our Head Start program. The Head Start students came from a variety of backgrounds, but the common themes were poverty, violence and in some cases homelessness. Emily was happy to have as many little hands on her as possible. She would walk in a room , sit or lay down and was patient even through poking and tail pulling. The kids drew pictures for her, showed her around the classroom, sang songs to her and cuddled with her.
Many Head Start children come to the program not speaking English, but to Emily and the kids that didn't matter - she spoke the language of unconditional love and tolerance.
Please know that I am NOT recommending untrained/uncertified dogs going into educational settings, looking back I'm sure therapydog organizations would have a thing or two to say about my youthful acts! I am just sharing my experiences as great illustrations of the unlimited possibilities of trained/certified therapy dogs in the educational setting and the positive impact they can have with children.
Therapy Dogs International has great information not only on traditional ways therapy dogs can help people but they also have information on "Tail Wagging Tutors", a program that was happening right in the same community I used to work in, Schenectady, New York and many other communities as well! From TDI's website:
"How Does the Reading Program Work? Libraries and Schools schedule reading hours for children and Therapy Dogs. Children and dogs bond together over a shared story. The children's confidence and reading skills grow in a relaxing environment. It's that simple.
Children who might be hesitant, embarrassed, or shy about their reading abilities feel at ease around a dog who is just there to listen to the story and not there to judge how well he or she reads. As Diane Mitchell, Branch Manager of Richland Public Library in Mississippi says, "More confidence in reading could lead to improved grades and improved grades mean happy children and parents.""
Intermountain Therapy Animals also has a program called Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ - How cute!). There website says:
"Research with therapy animals indicates that children with low self-esteem are often more willing to interact with an animal than another person. Further, during such interaction they are inclined to forget about their limitations. There are also physiological benefits to interacting with animals, including increased relaxation and lower blood pressure. The premise of the R.E.A.D. program is that children will find reading to an animal less intimidating, a special time for them that is helpful and fun and will become a positive environment in which learning is facilitated."
As with any new idea or concept there are always detractors. There are teachers, administrators and even families who feel animals have no place in schools or libraries. There are people out in the community who feel education should be teacher driven, rote instruction and some who say a human/animal connection is just pure hogwash.
All I know is that even my own life experience gives credibility to dogs being a great tool to help children learn. My fondest memories of childhood all include our Labs. Playing with the dogs but more importantly quiet moments reading or sharing my thoughts with a special furry four footed friend, a Labrador with soft fur and kind eyes who was all knowing and full of unconditional love.
My only hope is that everyone can go out there and support and promote the use of trained therapy dogs in education! As the old saying goes - "read more about it"! This is a great issue that really needs to be talked about!