Peaches the therapy dog helps children gain confidence and reading skills with her sensitive and engaging nature
By Emily Douglas (Reprinted from StubbyDog.org)
Not quite two years ago, I found myself sitting on the hallway floor in Abbott Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Mich. – waiting. I was invited by our dog trainer to serve as a demo-dog team for orientation night for one of her obedience classes. I arrived at the front door of the school and realized we might have a problem. The “we” being the other half of my team, my 18-month-old therapy-dog-in-training, Peaches. And the “problem” being the carpeted entryway to the school abruptly transitioning to oh-so-dreadful tile floor. We reached the end of the carpeting and, sure enough, Peaches came to a halt, her eyes pleading with me to turn around and head back. No amount of coaxing or treat luring was moving this gal. So, I sat. For 10 minutes we sat on the floor at the edge of the tile, waiting. And sure enough, eventually, opportunity knocked: kids.
Through the school doors came a mother and her two young children, at which point Peaches’ subdued wiggle-butt promptly began wiggling again. Just as they passed us, I hopped up off the floor and said in my best casual training voice, “Let’s go!” And off we went down the terrifying tile hallway after the little people who, in Peaches’ world, must be made of sunshine and cheese because as long as they were there, that tile floor was the last thing on her mind.
With her one-year anniversary as a registered therapy dog with Therapy Dogs Incorporated and a Reading Education Assistance Dog with Intermountain Therapy Animals approaching, not to mention her 3rd birthday in July, Peaches is still a relatively young therapy dog with plenty of maturing left to do. And yet I often forget this, given how far she’s come. Every dog has that special carrot they love working for when training.
For Peaches it has always been interaction with people, particularly kids. Children are quite often the only variable that make an otherwise scary place for Peaches not just tolerable for her, but enjoyable. Which is why we feel so incredibly fortunate to have found that special place with kids to visit as part of her therapy dog work.
After several months of successful visits to our local hospital, we were offered the opportunity to volunteer as a R.E.A.D. team at Ann Arbor Open School in Ann Arbor, Mich. With a background in education and a dog infatuated with all things children, I jumped at the chance to add a school to our visitation roster. The big question mark remaining for me, however, was how Peaches would really do with the R.E.A.D. program. All those pictures and videos I had seen of big, snuggly dogs lying calmly on the floor with kids lounging on them like pillows kept playing in the back of my mind. Peaches isn’t that kind of dog. She’s a stand-and-stare-at-you-while-smiling-and-wiggling-her-butt dog, not a lounge around on command dog. How was this going to work?
Luckily for Team Peaches, we hit the jackpot with Ann Arbor Open because it has since proven to be the perfect combination of supportive, open-minded staff and easygoing, enthusiastic students that any successful R.E.A.D. team would love to have. I often think about Kris Butler, in her book “Therapy Dogs Today,” noting how strangely common it is for people in the therapy dog world to value high levels of skill in dogs over a genuine and demonstrated “desire to engage.” And I often think about this oddity in relation to Peaches who is the epitome of an engagement-centered therapy dog, rarely performing much more than an occasional down, kiss or place it (placing her head on someone’s lap) on command during visits. She may not roll over on her back for a belly rub, let alone perform fabulous tricks, but she will proactively hold eye contact with, smile at and welcome prolonged body-to-body contact with any and all strangers – the last of which is a rarity in most dogs. And it is this level of engagement that both the staff and students at Ann Arbor Open School have come to admire and appreciate.
Christine Deucher, the school’s library media specialist responsible for welcoming us into the program, had previously worked at another school that utilized a reading program dog. She was already an enthusiastic supporter of R.E.A.D. But before our first visit, I worried she might expect Peaches to lie down and maintain that lovely, Zen-like state that some of the other dogs she’d worked with in the past had probably done. As it turned out, similar to how she thinks about her students, Christine avoids preconceived notions of what a therapy dog should or shouldn’t be and simply values Peaches for who she is and what she has to offer the students. “I am a believer in the power of dogs – for reading or any other activity,” Christine told me. “They’re a sort of healing balm for all of our anxious souls. That we can provide positive feedback about pit bull type dogs is a great way to say thank you to the Peach for all that she has done for our students.”
Once a week, Peaches and I visit the school for an hour and read with three or four different pairs of students for 15 – 20 minutes each. Typically the student pairs consist of a struggling reader and a high-achieving reader who work well together, and each student takes a turn reading from a book of their choice. Interestingly, it wasn’t until I spoke with one of the teachers after our third or fourth visit that I learned that several of the students reading with us were intensely shy or reluctant to read on their own in class. And the reason I had no idea was because they all read without hesitation to Peaches. Tucked away in our private reading corner in the library, I become a neutral, if not invisible presence at the end of the leash, while Peaches quietly encourages reticent students with her wiggles and smiles.
Now, with a few months of reading visits under her collar, Peaches has become a popular gal at school. We get mobbed in the hallway by students on their way out to recess and are accompanied by hollers and shouts of “Bye Peaches!” as we head across the parking lot back to our car after visits. Each time a student reads with Peaches, they get a smiling Peach sticker, bookmark or trading card to keep. Often when students arrive to read now, they’ve specifically selected books they think Peaches might enjoy, such as books about training service dogs or even a Gerald and Piggy series book because they know that Peaches’ nickname is “Piglet.”
Looking ahead, I know better than to speculate on the future of Peaches’ potential as a therapy dog because, realistically, she may not be one forever. Peaches is a sensitive dog, and it’s that sensitivity that allows her to engage with people of all types and ages at the level that she does. But sensitivity also has a price in the working dog world, and as the responsible half of our team, I am constantly aware of the stimulation and stress involved with therapy visits and know there may come a day when it will be time to let the visits go and let Peaches just be Peaches, sans the therapy dog label.
In the meantime though, I am forever grateful to have found a place for Peaches bursting with the children she loves and oozing with support for the dog that she is and the nature of the work she does. Finding facilities and staff members interested in having a therapy dog visit is one thing, but finding a place that genuinely understands that even therapy dogs are individuals and have their own special gifts and needs is quite another. The experience is perhaps best summed up by the following words from Lori Hayes, one of the student’s teachers: “When the kids finish reading to Peaches, they all return to class excited, happy and confident. Peaches makes a difference. Peaches should be wearing a superhero cape! She’s our hero at Ann Arbor Open.”
About Peaches: Peaches lives in Chelsea, Mich., with our family, which includes her other rescued canine brothers, Charlie, Hudson and Buster, and the love of her life, a black cat named Mose. Peaches was one of a litter of seven orphaned puppies rescued near Detroit, Mich., in July 2009 by the Buster Foundation Pit Bull Rescue. We brought her home as a foster at 6 weeks of age and adopted her because we couldn’t imagine life without her. You can find more fun facts, photos and updates on Peaches the Pit Bull’s Facebook page. We are forever indebted to Michelle McCarthy of K9 Homeschooling who is not only responsible for facilitating Peaches’ therapy dog preparation and training, but also for the countless volunteer opportunities we have been given in the southeast Michigan community. Thanks to Michelle and the wonderful students and staff at Ann Arbor Open, life is just peachy for the Peach, who just happens to be a “pit.”