Therapy dogs promote love of learning
It was a chance encounter with a learning support teacher at her son’s elementary school that led Diane Smith into the developing field of emotional therapy dogs in the classroom. More than just a literacy program, the organization she founded six years ago is now serving the emotional as well as the learning needs of dozens of Central Bucks School District students every week.
“I initially got the idea from the more traditional role of therapy dogs going into nursing homes,” says Smith, program director of Roxy Reading. When she got a Boykin Spaniel puppy with a fabulous disposition, she recalled the animals who had come into her grandmother’s nursing home to provide comfort to the residents, especially those suffering from dementia and other age-related issues.
“I decided to get Roxy certified as a therapy dog,” says Smith. “During the process, I took her into my son’s school to practice.” On her visit, Sandy Berstressor, the Learning Support teacher at Gayman Elementary in Danboro, invited Smith and Roxy into her class.
“The class had some students with limited literacy skills who were so shy, they were literally afraid to speak, let alone read.” But Roxy was patient and relaxed amid all the excited attention, and pretty soon the kids sat down with her and started to read her books from their classroom stock.
Before long, the children were looking forward to Roxy’s visits, picking out books to read to their four-legged friend the next time she came into the classroom.
“The first step to learning to read is wanting to read,” says Smith. For some of these youngsters, reading was such a chore that they couldn’t approach it with anything but dread. But “what was once a task is now a privilege. That success really affects their viewpoints about school and learning.”
Soon, other teachers became interested in getting a dog for their classrooms, and Smith looked for additional trained and certified dog-and-handler teams to participate in this new adventure. By the end of that first year, they had a name—Roxy Reading—and five teams were visiting five Gayman classrooms every week.
Six years later, Roxy Reading’s 44 volunteer pet therapy teams cover 78 classrooms in 15 Central Bucks schools. The organization recently received its state nonprofit status and has filed for federal tax-exempt approval.
While Roxy Reading continues to prioritize its role to nurture literacy, its success with children who are autistic, have multiple disabilities, or are enrolled in life skills programs has prompted it to expand its mission to bring joy and comfort to students with emotional and physical challenges.
For her inspiring leadership and hard work in providing pet therapy services to the community, Diane Smith was recently recognized by the Rotary Club of Doylestown with its 4-Way Test Award.
The ball is rolling
Word has spread of Roxy Reading’s success, spurring the growth of similar groups. Three years ago, Wendi Huttner, a Labrador Retriever breeder, and Deborah Glessner, a teacher on the verge of retirement who’d already determined she wanted to do dog therapy work, founded Nor’Wester Readers. They were drawn into the literacy effort by Roxy Reading and Diane Smith, and decided to take their program into the Council Rock School District. At the start of the 2007-2008 school year, Huttner and her black lab Balrion Weathertop Nor’wester—aka Wes—joined Kim Rinella’s reading class at Hillcrest Elementary School in Holland.
The human members of the team try to be invisible, Huttner says. In the typical weekly session, she sits on the floor with Wes in the reading area of the classroom, usually surrounded by the students as they sprawl on pillows, the carpet—and one large, soft and very patient dog.
“These are the children who are the most challenged readers in the whole elementary school,” says Huttner, “the ones the specialists aren’t able to reach, who would rather have crawled into the woodwork than read out loud.”
And yet, that’s just what they do: they pick up a book and open its pages and begin to sound out the words of the story. Wes doesn’t laugh or tease, “he’s completely nonjudgmental. If he wags his tail during a story about a frog, then all week that reader is looking for more books on frogs, hoping to entertain Wes the next time he visits the classroom.
“It’s building confidence and fostering in a child the love of books and reading—everything they didn’t want to do before,” says Huttner.
With its 20th volunteer team, Nor’Wester Readers now visits 23 classrooms each week in all ten of Council Rock’s elementary schools. Huttner is working this year with the Autistic Support class at Richboro Elementary, and recently took on the Lower Elementary School in the New Hope-Solebury district. Like Roxy Reading, Nor’Wester Readers is always looking for more teams; both organizations have waiting lists of teachers and classrooms, as well as requests for speaking engagements and other services the dogs and handlers can provide in the community.
Woof! Where do I sign up?
A therapy dog must be rock solid in personality and socialization, Huttner and Smith agree. While temperament is often innate, socialization—in this case, the ability to work with children and to maintain calm in extraordinary situations—can be developed by letting your dog play with crowds of kids and be around a lot of noise and activities.
“Training to heel, sit, come and stay—that’s the easy part,” says Huttner.
Therapy dogs and their handlers are certified as a team through a therapy dog organization such as the nonprofit Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs. Certification is $15, plus $15 a year to belong to the organization, which also bonds and insures your dog for his work. All handlers must also complete the background clearance process through the school for their weekly admittance into the classroom. There is no charge to the schools for these pet therapy services.
“We have a shortage of therapy dogs,” Huttner says. “They’re out there, but they don’t know we need them.”