Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Reading Buddies

 Hey, its summer time again and it mean its time for one of my favorite activities; reading stories with children. What! you don't believe it? dogs can't read? They can't understand what is read out to them? hmmmm may be. But we dogs are excellent listeners. YES! We are completely attentive when a child is reading out to us. We  provide them with such unconditional acceptance that they are not afraid of making mistakes. Even if they make mistakes, we don't laugh at them or criticize them. When they read with us, they can just be themselves....

This is the theme of our program 'Tails of Joy - an Animal Assisted Reading program'. We have been conducting these programs in various schools, libraries and bookstores across many cities in India. My fellow therapy dogs who specialize in helping children to read / learn are called as Reading Buddies. They work with school counselors and special educators or story tellers to help children gain confidence or overcome fear of reading.
My bark (blog) today is about such amazing Reading Buddies who have been helping children read.
Listen, learn

Reading buddy Oscar
Every time a child points to something in the book, Oscar a three and a half year old reading buddy makes it a point to see what it is. Trained to show an interest in what is being read, the bubbly Golden Retriever works in Mumbai for Animal Angels Foundation by visiting schools and libraries. Owner Tanushree Banerji says, “When I had heard about animal assisted therapy, I jumped at the chance. Oscar was just four months old when he started his training. His breed and the fact that he is extremely social helped in training and in his work.” This dedicated reading buddy is a delight to read to.
Lady Misty in a session
As is Misty, the happy Laby(Labrador). While most of her kind would love to play with kids, Misty’s training means that she would rather let children read and learn while she encourages them by listening attentively. Owner Ira Hulikavi smiles, “She is very ladylike in her ways. No unnecessary jumping around, no barking for fun and definitely no monkey business.” This white six year old Labrador who sports a brown patch on her back has been enjoying her time with kids at Crossword, Pune, for the last four years. Says Ira, “After training with Animal Angels, Misty happily followed all the rules. She lets children fall all over her without so much as a whimper. She just waits, watches and listens. If she really likes some kids, she licks their cheeks – which is her highest degree of affection.” Her strength lies is in the fact that Misty is calm and quiet even otherwise and she adores children. In fact that is a big plus for all reading/therapy dogs. Their temperament should be such that they like and react only positively people and children.
Coco is another fantastic assist and therapy dog. Says owner Meghna Loke, “Apart from being a great companion and assist dog for me (Meghna has back trouble which Coco has managed to ease considerably – she wrote about it in the last blog), he is almost natural when it comes to understand children.” So, Coco the Mumbai based Labrador gives children, despite all the attention they give him and the noise he works in, a good time. “His training with Goldie and Animal Angels has worked very well. So well in fact, that his therapy sessions with special children, delinquent and in his reading sessions leave everyone smiling,” grins Meghna.

Hard work
A file photo of Krunk at British Library
To be a reading dog is not easy work as Rakhi Chatterjee,  tells us. Her dog, Krunk, the 11 year old, really big Labrador was a reading buddy with Animal Angels, Pune for three years. Says Rakhi, “We took him for sessions to the British Council Library, Crossword, Vidya Valley School and to Jungle Book, Aundh. It was amazing to see children just open up easily and read a while lot to him.” On his part, Krunk was excellent. He hung on to every word that every kid read, let them pet him and slobber him with affection and generally had a blast.Now one of our senior most therapy dog, he enjoys a quiet time away from work with his mate Kiara's pups.
'I can rear too!' Pepsi posing with a book
Pepsi, a loving black Lab has been working with school counselors since the past three years at Pune, Kalmadi school where she helps children overcome their reading and learning issues. The sessions with Pepsi are so much fun that children forget that they have any problems or that are learning. They enjoy it and overcome their learning differences. She has the right temperament to be a reading buddy. Calm, docile, attentive and ready to be in one place till the child is reading. Her driver drops her off at the school twice a week where she works along with our volunteer and the school counselor. But for Pepsi its just a day at work.
Tanushree adds, “Some children are scared and others more than ready to read. After the initial hesitation, once somebody starts reading sitting next to Oscar then things fall into place. He doesn’t get distracted but he’s not always looking at the child’s face. If the kid points at something, Oscar’s attention is there.” 
Trick and treat
Krunks affection with books began when he was a puppy. Rakhi remembers, “My son Anirban would read with his head on Krunk’s stomach and when he did his homework, Krunk’s head would be in his lap. Since then, he has been around books, so in a library, he was quite at home. Being well trained was a big help as well.”  The tough part was getting him away from the session. “Kids wouldn’t let him go!”
In a break between sessions, Tanushree gets Oscar to perform some tricks. “Back home, we spend some time revising all the commands and the tricks. Not that he needs revision, it is only to ensure he does well whenever the session is,” she explains.
Cocker Spaniel Gazzo ideal for small kids
Size no bar
Its not just big dogs like me who make good reading buddies. We have dogs of various sizes and breeds. Like Yoda, our reading buddy from Bangalore. He is a naughty little pup, but when it comes to being with children, he sits patiently in their laps while they read. He visits the Hippocampus Library in Bangalore where children read out to him. Jeanie from Pune is another Pug, who visited the British Library last year with her buddy Gazzo, a Cocker Spaniel. Both of them were a big hit with kids. Small dogs have an advantage over us. They can sit in a kid's lap while they read.
Yoda, the tiny reading buddy
Its time to go!
The dogs are all equally excited about every session and owners ensure they reach some time before the session so that they are comfortable at the venue. Ira smiles, “She wags her tail crazily when she sees me packing her bag of treats. She always knows it’s time to get into an auto rickshaw and head to Crossword to listen to a good story. So she goes sniffing every inch of the place and settles down only after that. “Should she want a visit to the powder room, the young lady who normally lies down through the reading is at sit position and starts panting.” Then Ira knows Misty has needs time out.
You can read a story to Oscar and Coco in Mumbai:
28th April - Crossword, Nirmal Lifestyle, Mulund
Time: 12.pm to 1.pm
29th April - Crossword, Kemps Corner
Time: 11.30 to 12.30 

To know more about me and my team mates, log on to www.animalangels.org.in or  like our facebook page www.facebook.com/AnimalAngelsFoundation

Blog inputs by Uma Karve and Minal Kavishwar

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