July 1, 2013 - Therapy Team of the Second Quarter - Priscilla and Hansel relocated from another area to San Antonio. They joined Therapy Animals of San Antonio and retested with us. The story below was written by a teacher at her facility.
Education Has Gone to the Dogs
by Tim Lewis
Dogs have been in the workforce for as long as they have existed as domesticated animals. They pull sleds across frozen wastelands; they herd a variety of hoofed animals; performed rescue operations; hunt and retrieve game; protected property and persons owning the property; they sniff out drugs, bombs and other contraband and fleeing criminals; and miraculously learned to sniff out cancer in people and predict a seizure before it happens. Recently some dogs have found their most passive job yet: Going to school to be read to by students.
I have taught middle school special education students for thirteen years in what is called an "Alternative School." This means my colleagues and I are responsible for teaching students who have been temporarily expelled from their home for discipline problems and serious policy violations. (i.e. drugs, alcohol, destruction of property etc.) These students are about as at-risk as you can get. They are troubled; they are behind academically; they are at times volatile and even dangerous. The majority are tough and hardened kids who have decided that they have little need for education, and put little effort into achieving it that education.
Our story starts with Hansel of Therapy Animals of San Antonio. He has no sister named Gretel, (that I know of, of course) and has never raided a candy house or pushed a greedy witch into an oven. Hansel does, however, have the easiest job in the canine work force: He plops himself onto a soft and fluffy mat while someone reads him a story, coupled with a good ear or belly scratch. Hansel's job may be easy compared to the work of his peers, but the importance of his job cannot be judged by the amount of labor performed.
In all the years spent at my school we have seen programs come and go, new techniques fall flat after the grim realization that the idea looked better on paper. My skepticism was on high alert when our counselor informed us that they were bringing in a "weenie dog" to whom the students would read. My very first thought was "Oh my God, that poor little dog. This has got to fall under cruelty to animals."
It turns out that I was completely wrong. The first two students for Hansel's inaugural reading session were a fairly rough and difficult pair (euphemisms both) that had been assigned to us many times in the past (we are not a miracle factory I'm afraid) and they both appeared apprehensive as well, and doubt was flickering in their eyes. Priscilla, Hansel's human companion, had obviously seen this look before and she explained the nuts and bolts of what the program was and why reading to a dog was not as silly as they might have thought.
Still, our students, skeptical by nature and nurture were not completely buying in to what Priscilla was telling them. This changed when Hansel, a gray and black weenie dog, a shelter rescued tube of cuteness and floppy ears, wearing a blue vest proclaiming the name of his organization, flopped down on his fluffy mat. As if on cue the "awwwws" began and the book was opened, and two of our roughest students were reading articles from the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation newsletter to a weenie dog with a fairy tale name that occasionally opened his eyes and rolled strategically for a scratch on the belly without a single noise.
I watched, mouth agape, as one of the students began to read out loud while Hansel lay listening. This student had not read out loud for any reason as far as I knew, and while the student was not a perfect reader he showed fluency that I found surprising considering his lackluster performance on standardized testing in his past. I gave this some thought and it dawned on me that Hansel would pass no judgment on the students or their skills, making it a more comfortable reading experience for the student.
For several months Hansel has returned to be read to by our students. Surprisingly there was no shortage of volunteers to read to Hansel. Not everyone was perfectly comfortable with it, but not one refused. Some of Hansel's best customers came away with something:
12-11-12: Student Gabriel was very childlike in presentation, and was overjoyed at the fact that Hansel liked to nuzzle with him. Gabriel stated the dog's attention made him feel "awesome."
12-18-12: Student Alexis was very shy and reserved and did not like to read to others. She called her time reading to Hansel was "Cool."
2-8-13: Student Thomas had awkward social skills. He stated he really enjoyed reading to Hansel and called it a "Special Time."
2-8-13: Student Jaime also struggles in social situations. He smiled throughout the reading and he thought the dog really liked him.
2-19-13: Another Thomas is a very serious young man who "Never lets his inner child come out and play." Normally suspicious of intentions Thomas warmed to Hansel quickly and smiled a great deal throughout the reading. Ultimately he called it a "chill" experience.
These are but a few of the success stories (and fairy tale if you like) that we have had with the project. The experience did not "fix" any of our students; that is what time is for, and a good deal of it. What we have done with this program is showed some pretty tough kids that it's ok to smile, to laugh, to read aloud without fear of failure, but to simply enjoy the experience.
It is a tough time for the education business. It seems that each new generation of students are harder to get through to than the last. So far there is no solid, failsafe method of educating our most challenged and challenging students, and there probably never will be, but we do get to plant little seeds. The best we can hope for is that others continue to water these seeds. Thanks Hansel, for being one of our seeds.
San Antonio is not the only place this organization exists. If you know someone in need for any reason, look around locally and see if you can find your own therapy dog.
Afterword: Therapy Animals of San Antonio does not limit themselves to schools. They are also active in hospitals, nursing homes, and juvenile court, and other places where a helping paw is needed. Thank you and your sister programs in different cities for your service.