About a year ago, I got the chance to sit down with a woman who was the director of a small dog therapy organization on the east coast. She had observed Maisie and I from afar, and when we met she confirmed that Maisie had the temperament for therapy work. She was especially impressed when she saw Maisie’s non-reaction to three small French Bulldogs that lunged at both of us while barking like maniacs. We were both startled, but Maisie stayed right by my side and kept walking as I guided the two of us around them.
She encouraged me to look into smaller groups in addition to the well known large groups. I was interested in working with children. When my kids were in grade school, I enjoyed volunteering in their classrooms. I also used to teach swimming lessons to 3 to 6 year olds at our local YMCA, and I missed being around kids that age. I found a list of therapy dog organizations on the AKC website and noticed Sit Stay Read located in Chicago. After reading about their goal to improve reading and literacy skills for Chicago Public School students, it appeared to be the perfect match for Maisie and me.
I attended two different training sessions to learn more about what we would be doing. When I felt like Maisie was ready, I scheduled her temperament test with their evaluator and was thrilled when she passed. I was required to do three different observations and then I brought Maisie to a school session for our final step. We entered the classroom as one of the dog teams and were observed by the dog team evaluator. She watched us both as we interacted with the students and advised us when we needed it. At the end of the hour, she happily welcomed us to the program!
We just finished our first six week session in one classroom and are in the middle of a session in another classroom. Each week, Maisie is more and more comfortable with the routine and she continues to impress me with her ability to bond with the kids. We will be in new classrooms after spring break and I’m so excited to get to know a new group of kids!
- A specific curriculum has been developed for each grade by a Program Advisory Committee that utilizes dog themed books and materials. You can read more about each grade level here.
- The first day of each session is dedicated to dog safety. The children learn about how to approach a dog, ask permission, let the dog sniff their hand and where the best place is to pet a dog. They also learn about the signals a dog may send to them. Student volunteers act out dog body language in different situations which is a lot more memorable than simply being told what to watch for.
- A program leader is always present to manage the classroom and introduce all of the volunteers. We have a pre-program meeting to go over the readings of the day and also the dog team question. We answer a new question each week that relates to the readings. For example, it might be describing a certain characteristic using rhyming, similes or alliteration. The program leader makes sure everything is running smoothly and jumps in wherever needed. They also read a few of the students’ stories or poems out loud and lead the Sit Stay Read keep reading cheer before we leave.
- At the end of each session, each student receives a bound collection of their stories or poems that they can keep as a souvenir.
- At the end of the school year, each participating school has a Keep Reading Celebration. The kids get to visit with a dog team one more time and they each receive a Summer Reading Fun Pack. The packs include pencils, erasers, crayons, a design-it-yourself notebook and an assortment of books. In 2017-2018 each student received SIX brand new books for all age groups for themselves and to read to their siblings!
- Belly rubs and treats!
- The smiles on all of the kids faces when Maisie and I walk in the room and spread out her blanket.
- When the kids settle in and relax next to her while they are reading the books and their poems.
- She loves wearing her bandana, it means she’s going to see the kids.
- She knows when to give a little extra loving to the kids that are completely at ease with her.
If you live in the Chicago area and would like to learn more about volunteering with Sit Stay Read as a dog team or a reading buddy click here.