Finnegan and I just finished our first school year as a reading team. It was more rewarding for both of us than I could have imagined, but it wasn’t until the last day that I had one of those ah-ha moments that I wanted to share, especially for anyone thinking of doing therapy work.
I honestly never pictured Finn as a reading dog. He's done a good job in nursing homes, gently putting his head in one lap after another, and I always thought he’d be wonderful in a children’s hospital setting but a reading dog? You see Finn has one shortcoming when it comes to reading. He does not like to lie down and do NOTHING and reading to him is pretty much nothing. So when a woman I barely knew asked if Finn could take her dog’s place in a class of children with special needs, I was honored she picked us, but I desperately searched for an excuse as to why this might not be a great idea. Her Max, a big gentle giant had a degenerative spinal disease. It was so sad that he had to retire as he seemed to be the perfect reading dog as he lay in the middle of the rug, dozing off while the kids read to him. But Finn was not Max.
Now there are a couple of traits a therapy dog in this situation must have that are nonnegotiable. He must be:
150% tolerant and gentle, and
Must love children!
I knew Finn had these qualities and knew his commands, but still, a month or so into the program I could only imagine that Mr. B, the teacher, was going home at night saying to his wife, “Honey, how can I tell her nicely not to come back?” I had no basis for thinking this except that I had a picture of the perfect reading dog in my mind and Finn wasn’t it. In a few short weeks he had:
Gently sat on one little girl’s lap completely covering her book WHILE she was reading. Totally my fault. I told him to “sit, stay” and he did! I just didn't tell him WHERE to sit. When Mr. B asked why aren’t you reading? (he was behind the desk and couldn’t see the situation), she said with a grin, “Finney didn’t like the story. He’s sitting on it, so we better choose another.”
The next visit, Finn lay panting next to one of the little boys (it was rather hot) and in the process drooled on his page. As the wet spot spread, the child stopped reading and looked at Finn. From the look on the little boy’s face I was sure he was going to cry. At first he looked horrified! “Why aren’t you reading?” boomed the good- natured Mr. B (again). “Because…because…my book is wet!” was the reply. “Don’t be silly, why would your book be wet?” “Well, because Finn… was helping me with a word! “ As if to convince Mr. B, the little boy read the word to Finn again and Finn gave him a kiss. I’m sure it was a kiss of appreciation but I was pretty sure THAT wasn’t allowed. But throughout the rest of the year, Finn gave dozens of gentle kisses and all Mr. B ever said was, “They sure love him and he sure loves them.” And so it went. Finn always looked forward to his trip to school and he did learn to lie down quietly, relax (sort of) and listen. But solve one thing and another pops up.
More relaxed and lying down, Finn started to talk “doodle “sometimes, and the kids would collapse in giggles saying, “Oh Finney!” If someone asked what Finn said, Mr. B would respond, “He said to read faster” or “louder!” If we all clapped for someone, Finn would stand and wag his tail! Everyone learned to “high five” Finn at the end of each class.
I was truly amazed that all 7 of these children were so loving and supportive of each other – always cheering each other on despite the challenges they face. And they cheered FInn on too. They picked out lots of dog stories :) They were a really a great group, which says so much about them, their families, and their teachers.
There was one little boy, (I’ll call him D for privacy reasons), the smallest actually, who was one of the best readers but did not seem particularly fond of dogs. He’d pick the farthest seat away from Finn. He never joined in on the giggles or engaged with the dog. Then one afternoon, when Mr. B was gone, we took the children to another classroom and sat in one corner. The other children were also special needs kids but they didn’t join us. One older girl seemed particularly interested in Finn and asked to see him but the aide said no. Something about the child made me uneasy. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that she had no good intentions towards my dog. It seems I was right. She was in the back of the room with two aides and a few other children when she suddenly sprinted across the room, yelling at Finn with something in her raised hand. A scissors? A pencil? I don't know, it all happened so fast. Finn heard the disturbance, turned towards her and SAT down calmly. He quietly watched her, while the rest of us jumped in to take action. He never moved or reacted. After the disturbance was over, little D walked over to Finn and sat right down next to him. He put a tentative arm around Finn, “Finney, my man, I’ve got your back.” After that they were pretty much buds. D would ask to walk Finn out of the classroom and he’d proudly hang on to the leash while I kept a good hold on it too.
On the last day, we were all saying good-bye for the summer and laughing over some of Finn’s more memorable antics. I sighed and said to the children, “Finney loves you all even if he’s not perfect.” Without missing a beat, one of the little girls dropped down and gave Finn a big hug. Then she grinned up at me and said, “Neither are we."
OMD Simple yet profound! I knew then, Finn had done his job well. He listened to them, he talked to them, he encouraged them, he made them laugh, and they loved reading to him. He was imperfectly, perfect! And beyond reading, these kids knew when he was anxious and vice versa, because it was hard for some of them to read. They were all in it together. So what’s a wet page here and there. Proud of my boy and these wonderful children.