Therapy dog reading program

April 27, 2020

 

St. John Ambulance was gearing up for the Winnipeg launch this spring of an innovative program where therapy dog teams go into schools with the handlers reading to children who have difficulty reading. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has put the living readings on hold, organizers have decided to launch virtually anyway thanks to the efforts of volunteers like Claire Mackley.

Mackley had been putting videos on YouTube of her reading with her 10-year-old border collie Tanner by her side before the pandemic hit. With social distancing measures keeping people apart, continuing online seemed the perfect fit.

“Before Spring Break started and we thought we were going to be back in school in just a few weeks, I just started fooling around reading stories on YouTube with Tanner for my students to enjoy,” said Mackley, a teacher at Ecole Viscount Alexander who previously taught in Starbuck. “(It was) Just for fun and also because I teach in a French immersion school and sometimes getting French materials can be a challenge. When we came back from Spring Break, the whole world basically changed.”

Therapy Animals Involved in Literacy Skills (T.A.I.L.S.) is a motivational, confidence building, low stress canine-assisted reading program for children who are experiencing difficulties with reading. T.A.I.L.S. allows children the opportunity to read aloud to a dog in a non-judgmental, less intimidating reading environment.

Originally launched in Yellowknife 13 years ago, the program was first introduced to Manitoba in 2018 starting at the Jake Epp library in Steinbach.

The online program is being presented initially to interested schools who have benefited from St. John Ambulance’s Special Paws for Special Kids program – a long-standing initiative which was developed in Winnipeg and features therapy dog teams providing focused attention on a small number of high needs children in schools – in hopes that this can provide them with some extracurricular programming throughout the COVID-19 crisis. The virtual launch provides multiple video links of therapy dogs teams reading stories for children.

While it’s not the same as reading with the students one-on-one, it will do for now.

“I think it’s different for the kids and the dogs when they are actually together,” said Mackley, who has had Tanner since he was a puppy. “Tanner is a typical dog. You go about your day and he’s fairly compliant. If I ask him to do something, he’ll be like, ‘I’m a dog and I’ll try to help you out.’ But the moment that they’re actually out in the field working with people, their whole demeanor changes.

“All of the dogs in the program figure out that this is their job and they take it very seriously.”

Tanner, who turns 11 in a few weeks, and Mackley have volunteered at Grace Hospital, Winnipeg Regional Health Authority flu clinics, the University of Manitoba’s Dog Days and orientation sessions for new St. John Ambulance volunteers, among other events.

In addition to the newly developed community service initiatives for schools throughout this pandemic, St. John Ambulance therapy dog teams have been providing virtual therapy dog visits to personal care homes and assisted living facilities as well. One volunteer spent a half hour outside the windows of a care home while the residents enjoyed their Easter lunch. She and her dog did tricks and provided entertainment which was appreciated like never before, organizers said.

“The dogs also become friends to the kids,” she said. “The kids become attached to the dogs and this becomes part of their routine and right now with COVID the sense of normal for a lot of people and a lot of kids is missing. Even though they’re not going to build the same relationship, we’re hoping that it’s just one more way of reaching out to the community because that’s what St. John Ambulance has always been about.”

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