by Terrance V. Mc Arthur
You wouldn’t expect to see a dog in a library, but Aero, a perky little Papillion, is a regular visitor at the Reedley and Orange Cove branches of the Fresno County Public Library, he isn’t a seeing-eye dog with a harness; he wears a jaunty bandana and tags that identify him as a therapy dog, trained as a reading tutor.
A reading tutor?
He doesn’t correct a child’s grammar and pronunciation, but this Tail Waggin’ Tutor does listen quietly and attentively as children read to him, which provides the practice the young people need to help them build good reading skills.
Georgia Miller, Aero’s owner/handler/trainer/companion, answered some questions about Aero, therapy dogs, and the Tail Waggin’ Tutor program:
Terrance: At another library, we had a Tail Waggin’ Tutor that was a Labradoodle, a large dog. Your dog, Aero, is a Papillion, a much smaller dog. Is there any type of dog that seems to work better as a TWT?
Georgia: Breed type does not matter when it comes to being a TWT. The main thing is to have a dog that is really friendly and loves children. Aero is definitely not a couch potato! He enjoys greeting everyone, but is also able to settle down and enjoy the children being around him as they read. Obviously, a larger breed dog that behaves like Aero may certainly make some children fearful of the dog. Due to Aero’s size, he is able to convey that snuggly cuteness with children, helping to alleviate any fears they may have of dogs. However, any dog with a personality to share real love provides opportunities for children to interact and learn in a positive manner. The relationships that grow between the dog and the reader leads to enhancing reading skills in the library environment.
Terrance: What qualities are needed to make a good therapy dog? If the dog isn’t born with the qualities, what kind of training can help the dog acquire them?
Georgia: Therapy dogs must be in good physical condition and react well when subjected to crowded areas, a variety of noises, and strangers approaching them from any direction. The therapy dog must be able to follow the owner’s command if placed in harmful situations where the dog’s life may be at stake. Basic manners classes are available to train dogs how to behave under these different circumstances. The American Kennel Club offers a Canine Good Citizenship certificate for any dog that passes the basic and intermediate manners evaluation which is the core objective with therapy dogs. Introducing the dog to different environments can help to achieve the training necessary to prepare the dog for therapy work.
Terrance: Aero took a two-week training program to become a therapy dog. How intensive was it, and what was covered? What challenges did you face during the experience?
Georgia: The two-week training program is an optional practice offered by Chapter #220 in Fresno that prepares you and your dog for the evaluation required for becoming a team with Therapy Dogs International.
The first week reviews the obedience part of the evaluation, which includes the same requirements necessary to receive the CGC certificate. This entails a ten-item test:
• Accepting a friendly stranger
• Sitting politely for petting
• Appearance and grooming
• Walking on a loose lead
• Walking through a crowd
• Sit and down on command and Staying in place
• Coming when called
• Reaction to another dog
• Reaction to distraction
• Supervised separation of dog and handler for three minutes.
The second week reviews five additional test items, required by TDI and are not a part of the CGC certification. These are:
• Reactions to medical equipment
• Acclimation to Infirmities
• Meet and greet patient in hospital/wheelchair which entails proper etiquette and safety for the dog
• Reaction to children
• Dog must walk through food on the floor with a command from the owner to “leave it” with no physical corrections to the dog.
This two-week training gives insight to the handler as to what to expect under different circumstances at the many various locations you may choose to visit as a therapy dog team. The team trainers give advice on how to practice with your dog at home to best prepare for the evaluation and give suggestions as to whether they believe it is advisable if the dog continues with additional training before considering evaluation at that time.
I found this portion to be rather stressful as it was a totally new area for me and for my dog. Although I have had several years of experience in obedience work with dogs, I was not prepared for this type of evaluation. During the evaluation your dog must wear a flat collar or harness with no training collars allowed, as well as no physical corrections. Being used to obedience work with my dogs, the first thing I am used to doing is a gentle but physical correction. Only verbal commands can be used, without any tugging or pulling on the leash. It was not only something new for my dog to learn, but for me as well.
Terrance: There are therapy dogs that are reading tutors, work with seniors, provide grief management for bereaved families, and other services. Do they all receive the same training, or is specialization handled with different techniques?
Georgia: Once you and your dog have passed the evaluation and have received your identification certification from TDI, the area of therapy work is a choice made by the owner/handler. It is where you feel the most compassion and desire to help others, although the decision might be made by the right “fit” that you feel is best suited for your dog.
Chapter #220 organizes mentoring to new teams, to prepare you for going out on your own, as well as group visits that allow a new team to see where they are best suited. They also have a facilitator that will make contact with new locations if you so desire.
Terrance: What is the biggest challenge Aero faces in working as a therapy dog?
Georgia: Aero’s challenges are few, as I am responsible for him and his advocate under all circumstances. It is my responsibility to protect him. Typically, where a large dog would always walk at your side, I make the choice to carry Aero in order to prevent any mishaps. Sometimes, this can be advantageous; it keeps him safe, instead of worrying about your larger dog and how he is handling the situation on his own.
Terrance: What experience made you proudest of Aero?
Georgia: I was quite impressed with his moment when being “read” to by a deaf boy who “read” in sign language. Aero is used to children sitting down to give him recognition before reading. The boy sat down and began to “read,” where his hands were being used to read and not to pet Aero. I was amazed to see that Aero instinctively knew that it was different, and he just laid down quietly. He was totally responsive and accepted the needs of this boy without any hesitation, giving me new insight. Sometimes we don’t need to ask questions or wonder why, but to readily accept the different circumstances and trust the given situation.
Terrance: You are working to prepare other dogs to be therapy dogs. What differences are you finding in the ways the dogs learn, and in your approaches and attitudes?
Georgia: Dogs have been raised differently prior to coming into your home. I acquired Aero when he was seven months old. His original owner/breeder trained him well and introduced him to the world, socializing him and preparing him to be around people. He trusts and loves all people. One of my dogs in training was born here with me and has been trained, but has not had much socialization, but it is her personality to love people. She totally trusts me. The other dog I have in training was acquired when he was 15 months old, and was never even trained on a leash. His sweet disposition makes him a great candidate for a therapy dog, yet his level of trust in me is still growing, as I have not yet owned him for a year. That makes his life outside my home greater than his life with me. His trust in me is growing daily; he will someday make a wonderful therapy dog as he is intelligent, eager to please, and loves people. Through this training process I have learned how much dogs need to trust their owners in order to become the best that they can be to provide the love that they were designed to give. We, as people, also have our Creator to look up to and learn to trust in completely in order to provide the love we were designed to give.
Terrance: How did you get Aero, and what made you think Aero could be a library tutor?
Georgia: I purchased Aero when my children began college and I was a part-time empty-nester. My love for dogs drew me to search for a small dog I could nurture and love in my home, as most of my dogs have always been what I consider outside dogs. Aero is my first small dog. I purchased him with the intention of showing him and having fun in other events.
Terrance: What is your background, home, and education? What dogs were in your life as you grew up?
Georgia: There has never been a time in my life without dogs. I was raised on a citrus ranch with dogs outside all the time and was given my own dog at the age of five. As an adult, I have bred and shown Australian Shepherds for over thirty years. As an owner of a citrus ranch, I have always had several Aussies around.
I received my BA, and later MA in education, from Fresno Pacific University before it was a university. I also taught kindergarten for over 25 years and home-schooled my own children through the third grade.
Terrance: How did you learn about Tail-Waggin’ Tutors, and what got you interested?
Georgia: During a training class with Aero, around the time he received his CGC, I learned about TDI and it struck my interest as to something we could do together. The reading tutor came after Aero was certified and participated in a couple of different group events with the TWT team from Fresno. The chapter facilitator mentioned that there were libraries in my area that were in need of a tutor, and so it transpired.
Terrance: What do you and Aero get out of working with children? What effect does it have on the bond between the two of you?
Georgia: Aero and I enjoy getting out and doing activities together. The one thing I was looking for in this economy was to do something that was nearby. I enjoy doing something beneficial with him that is right here in our own communities that give back to those here–providing a different venue for the children. It is rewarding to see them blossom. In the beginning they greeted us at the library door in Orange Cove just because he was a dog– a dog in the library! They didn’t really want to read to him. Now they not only greet us at the door to see Aero, but they also have books in their hands, ready to read to him!
Whenever you take the time to do something with your dog, you are creating a deeper bond. Dogs don’t require as much from people; they love us unconditionally, no matter how they are treated, but when you do things with them with love, it develops love and trust, which deepens the respect and the desire for obedience.
Terrance: This is your chance to do a recruitment commercial for Tail-Waggin’ Tutors. What would you say to get people to become a part of the program?
Georgia: YAY! Recruitment time!
I can’t begin to tell you how many more therapy dog teams are needed in our communities. I have requests from other libraries, from retirement homes, and from hospice care–all in Reedley and the nearby communities. I only have a limited amount of time to give. If others would join in this effort, so many more people would be reached by the love of our four-footed friends that truly are our paws-itive blessings. It is very rewarding and something that you can give back to the people in your community without really appearing that you’re doing all that much. After all, the dog really does it for you! It takes time and training to prepare your dog for this work, but it is time well spent, learning more about life as you train your dog.
I can’t tell you the smiles it brings to people’s faces just to see your dog in the library! There are adults who just come and say “Hi” to greet Aero and give him a little pat. The gift of joy is just the beginning…as you then are able to reach out and watch as others interact with your dog and grow in their willingness to take the next step in learning to love. Whether you are growing the desire to read a book with a child, or a love that a senior is missing as dogs are no longer a part of their home life, the love that abounds is endless. The benefits and rewards you find with sharing a part of your life and time with others far outweighs any challenge you may have to face during the time of training. Remember, there are other people ready and willing to help you each step of the way on your journey.
For questions or more information feel free to contact Ruby Houlihan at 435-0874 or email me at email@example.com.
Terrance: Anything else you have to say about TWT? Any experiences you would like to share?
Georgia: I have only been on board with TDI a few months and look forward to meeting people in our community who are interested in being a part of this wonderful organization. There are so many reasons to be involved and I would love to share them all. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to be a part of your publication.
Aero’s summer schedule at the Orange Cove Library is Monday afternoons from 1:30 – 3:00 through August 13 but may go till the 20th. They visit the Reedley Library from 2:00 – 3:30 on Wednesday afternoons through August 15, but it also may be extended through the 22nd. Tentative extensions are due to the local school district having a later start this year, but depends upon attendance with school preparation. Hopefully, Aero or some other Tail Waggin’ Tutor, will return during the school year–check your local library for more information.
Read more therapy animal & other pet related articles in our Pet Perspective category.