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‘Man’s best friend’ gives back to the community in many ways

June 2, 2008

By Jennifer Gallus
Staff Writer

A Howard Lake border collie named Penny is helping kids read more confidently and is putting smiles on faces to those in need thanks to training her owners Neil and Carol Sideen enrolled her in.

The three recently graduated a Delta Society Therapy Dog class through the Leader of the Pack Canine Center in Buffalo.

Yes, the three graduated because not only does the canine need to pass the class, but the owners/handlers need to do just about as much work, and the resulting designation is a registered therapy dog team.

In fact, the student manual for the Pet Partners Team Training Course is sizable, measuring a half-inch thick.

“I couldn’t believe how big the manual was,” Neil said.

That’s because the Delta Society’s program has stringent standards and is considered the gold standard for such training, according to therapy dog instructor Patti Anderson.

Therapy animals, which can be dogs, llamas, cockatoos, rabbits, and even chickens and more, must meet 22 criteria in order to earn the title of a registered therapy animal, Anderson explained.

“It’s not just obedience, it’s different types of behaviors and temperaments,” Anderson said.

What’s more, a therapy dog must be comfortable with, for example, different smells of a hospital, and leave food trays alone, explained the owner of the Leader of the Pack Canine Center Linda Anderson.

Therapy animals comfort and lift the spirits of those in nursing homes and hospitals. Visits from these special animals have been shown to reduce blood pressure and have other physical benefits to those on the receiving end, according to Linda.

Helping kids to read

Another role therapy animals play is helping kids to read more confidently.

A unique program called the READ program, which stands for Reading Education Assistance Dogs, was launched in 1999 and is a literacy model schools and libraries have been utilizing.

“The READ program builds confidence, and aids in the ability to read out loud,” Linda said.

There are only two instructors in Minnesota who train dogs for the READ program, and Patti is one of them.

The other instructor, Nancy Brooks, has been teaching the program in the metro area for the last six years, but not until recently, has the program been offered in the west-metro area.

Part of the therapy dog coursework covers READ qualifications, so Penny is able to help students read, as well. A curriculum has been developed on how to utilize therapy dogs to read with children.

This is accomplished by allowing children to read to the therapy dog. Children may not be comfortable reading in front of their peers, but they are comfortable, and find it enjoyable, to read to a dog.

The child may even try to teach the dog to read, thus turning the child into the tutor for the dog, Patti said.

Soft statistics show a 20 to 30 percent improvement in children’s reading skills who participate in the READ program. An increase in attendance as well as cleanliness has also been noted.

Instructors tell the children all the grooming tasks the dog had to do before it could come to class like taking a bath, having its hair combed, and even having its teeth brushed.

The kids listen to that and follow suit, Patti explained.

Carol was a first grade teacher for 35 years, and now is a substitute teacher, so Penny’s new role with students fit well with Carol’s life’s work.

Getting into therapy class

The Sideens had previously enrolled Penny in beginning obedience classes, then in a canine good citizen class, and then in an agility class, before the therapy dog class.

“When we started the canine agility class, we quickly learned that one of us had to run alongside Penny,” Neil laughed, “so we’re taking a time out from that.”

“We went into therapy dog because Penny works so well with kids, and she’s so social,” Neil said.

The 15-month-old pooch has already visited a nursing home and hospital, and has been to Humphrey Elementary in Waverly several times.

Another therapy dog class will be starting at Leader of the Pack Canine Center in Buffalo in July. For more information, call (763) 684-3973 or go to www.leaderofthepackcanine.com.

“It’s a wonderful option for those who are cutting back financially these days, but want to do something with their dogs and give back to the community,” Linda said.

The class is also a great project for those in 4-H, Girl Scouts, or Boy Scouts, or anyone looking for a community service project.

A free summer fun spectacular is planned at Leader of the Pack Canine Center Sunday, June 29 from noon to 4 p.m. for people to bring their dogs and enjoy demos such as agility, rally, obedience, and police dog, and for people to meet the breeds. Hot dogs and refreshments will be provided.

More information about therapy animals can be found at www.mntherapyanimals.com.

“I think it’s a great opportunity. The need is out there,” Neil said.

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