by Lorie Lewis Ham
These are strange times and we are all trying to adjust. Shannon Escobedo and her two therapy dogs, Doxie and Fozzy, used to go to two Fresno County Libraries, one of them being Reedley, and the kids could read to the dogs. But of course that isn’t happening now, so Shannon started a virtual version. I chatted with her recently about the Read to a Dog Program, and about this new twist.
KRL: For those who aren’t familiar, please tell us a little bit about what the read to a dog program is.
Shannon: The Tail Waggin’ Tutors Read to a Dog Program is one of the services offered by Therapy Dogs International (TDI), the therapy dog group we are a part of that is based in New Jersey. Tail Waggin’ Tutors typically visit with kids at libraries and schools where the children can read to the dogs. Studies have shown that children reading to dogs have increased comprehension of what they read and increased literacy, as well as are much more confident in their ability to read out loud since the dogs listen without judging the students. Our chapter of TDI is Chapter #220 out of Fresno, and we have about 60 active dog-handler teams working in the community. Quite a number of these visit libraries and schools, while others visit hospitals, retirement communities, care facilities, courtrooms, and more to bring the people there comfort and happiness. Fozzy Bear and Doxie, my two dogs, are the only certified double team in the Central Valley, meaning that they have been tested to visit together with one handler (me). My dogs love everyone, but their absolute favorites are kids, so we became Tail Waggin’ Tutors. We have been visiting Reedley Library and Bear Mountain Library almost every Saturday ever since.
KRL: When and how did you become a part of it?
Shannon: I first became a part of TDI in 2014 with Doxie (this was before Fozzy Bear was born). Doxie had been the mascot at my then work at Valley Animal Center, and was well behaved and friendly to everyone in all situations. He had walked in parades, visited people at booths, worked camps for kids, and done outreach events for schools and groups all over the Central Valley. He also would come with me to visit my grandmother, who lived with my mother and had dementia. While there were many times that she did not recognize us or had outbursts, she was always calmed and happy when visiting with Doxie. He looked very similar to her dog Punkin, who had passed away long ago, so she thought Doxie was Punkin coming back to be with her. Doxie would sit next to her for hours with his head in her lap while she petted him. After seeing how he was a natural at therapy dog work, I wanted to have us become an official team. I had heard about TDI through my work at Valley Animal Center, so sought out the local chapter. In order to become a therapy dog, dog and handler teams must pass a rigorous 13-point group-format test that takes about two hours. It tests the dogs on their temperament, comfort level around crowds, medical equipment, loud noises, etc., obedience, the ability to leave food alone, and more. Doxie passed both of his practice tests on the first try with flying colors, and did the same for his actual test, so we officially became a TDI team October 2014. Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away soon after we became a team, but we decided to continue visiting at other places in her memory.
KRL: Please tell us a little about your dogs?
Shannon: Doxie is a 10 1/2 year old Dachshund, Chihuahua, and Shih-Tzu mix rescue dog. I found his mother, Rita, a Chihuahua/dachshund mix, abandoned – and very pregnant – by the side of the road, miles away from anyone’s homes. I took her in (this was a Friday night) and made an appointment to have her spayed first thing Monday morning, but fate had other plans! The puppies were born prematurely the next morning (Saturday). The first one to arrive, born in my hands, was Doxie. He is incredibly intelligent and intuitive, gets along well with other animals and people, and is a fast learner. He knows more than 50 commands and tricks, and has a number of AKC titles to his name, including Canine Good Citizenship, Achiever Dog, CGC Urban, CGC Community Canine Advanced, Therapy Dog, and Trick Dog Performer. He loves stuffed toys and wading in his kiddie pool at home, as well as visits to the dog park, where he spends more time saying hi to all the people than playing with the dogs!
Fozzy Bear is a 6 1/2 year old Siberian Husky/Golden Retriever mix who was my “foster failure” from working at Valley Animal Center. He was brought to the shelter by a good Samaritan who found him and his two siblings abandoned in a basket in a field at 6 weeks old. I was his foster mom as the puppies soon broke with Cryptosporidium Parvum, a deadly disease similar to Parvo. One of his littermates who was living at a different home quickly succumbed to the disease, but thankfully after months of intense treatment, Fozzy and his other brother, Remington, were cured. Remington, who had been living with a different foster mom, went on to be adopted by a wonderful family that we still keep in contact with. However, after months of working so hard to keep Fozzy alive, I had lost my heart and adopted him myself, thus “failing” as a foster mom since I didn’t bring him back to the shelter to be adopted by someone else! Fozzy loves chasing water from the hose, playing fetch with tennis balls, and tugging on rope toys. He likes visiting the dog park, too, and can usually be found running after tennis balls there, too. Fozzy Bear had a wonderful temperament and a love for people from the start, and since Doxie was having such success as a therapy dog, it was always my goal to have Fozzy become one, too. The main thing was that he needed patience! He was a fast learner and loved everyone, but when he grew to 85 lbs, he needed to be very calm in order to pass his tests.
He was always a little too exuberant and needed to grow up before we could reach our goal. Finally, when he was three years old, he passed his TDI test in September of 2017. Since then, he has starred as Sandy in the play Annie by Children’s Musical Theaterworks, and has followed in Doxie’s footsteps in terms of attending events, camps, and in achieving all the same AKC titles. We would arrive at our therapy dog visits with the two in a XXL dog stroller, and for three years I would switch which dog was in the stroller every 15 minutes. Although they were used to working together outside of TDI visits, we were not able to visit with all three of us together until they passed their double test, which no one had ever done before. On March 3, 2020, we achieved our goal.
Unfortunately, four days later, while waiting for our official letter to arrive stating we could visit as a double team, COVID-19 hit and all of our in-person visits were cancelled indefinitely by our TDI National headquarters.
KRL: How does this work online?
Shannon: When received word from the National headquarters of TDI that all visits were cancelled indefinitely, we were devastated and depressed, along with our readers. This increased when schools were cancelled, all of the other Fresno County Library programs, and pretty much everything else kids might go to have fun, from skate parks to movie theaters to children’s camps. We wanted to do what we could to keep our local kids excited about reading and to give them something to look forward to. I saw an article on my phone about a therapy dog from another organization doing a virtual visit, and thought if they could do it, so could we! I learned all I could about Zoom and we hosted our very first virtual visit on April 16. The kids (and usually parents, too) log in to Zoom and listen while I read stories to them, which is usually based on a daily theme. On most days, we have an activity segment, also, which has ranged from learning how to train your dog to do tricks, the dogs painting pictures, potting plants, segments with local wildlife, and much more. Sometimes, I put the camera really close to the dogs and stand behind it so the dogs are really focused on looking into the camera. This allows kids time to read their own stories to the dogs while on “mute.” We end our sessions with time for questions and answers from the watching audience. I usually read 2-3 books for younger readers and a chapter from a book for older readers. Lately, we have also been featuring books written by African American children’s authors, as well.
KRL: When are the virtual events and where do people go to attend virtually?
Shannon: We currently have virtual visits three times a week. We visit on Wednesdays from 5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. PST and on Saturdays at our original reading times, 10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. PST (when we would normally have our visit at Reedley Library) and 12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. PST (when we would normally have our visit at Bear Mountain Library). After our live events, I edit the videos so that only the dogs appear (to protect our youth and their families) and put them on YouTube for anyone to enjoy who missed the session. Our YouTube Channel is called “Doxie, Fozzy, & Friends.” To join the live events, participants would need to first go to us04web.zoom.us to download the Zoom app.
At the appointed time, they would need to click “join meeting” and enter our meeting ID “709 803 5245” and our password “doxie” to log in to our session. When visiting on our YouTube channel, families can choose to watch the entire episode, which is usually about 45 minutes in length, or can watch individual segments (such as reading a certain book or watching a certain activity), which are 5-10 minutes in length.
KRL: Do you foresee doing this for awhile?
Shannon: Unfortunately, yes. There is still no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic, and once that ebbs, we will still need to wait for our National headquarters of TDI to give us the all clear to begin visits again. Until we are able to do our in-person visits again, we will continue to do three live events a week. Once we are able to visit in-person again, we will still do one virtual event a week, our session on Wednesday evenings, so that our YouTube viewers will still have a program to enjoy, as they may not live locally. We are currently the only TDI team in the Central Valley offering virtual visits.
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
Shannon: Doxie Escobedo and Fozzy Bear Escobedo both have their own Facebook profiles for anyone that would like to follow them. We haven’t posted on the pages very much lately, but once we are able to do our in-person visits again, it is a good way for me to communicate if something comes up (like being called into work) and we can’t make it to a visit. Also, this coming Saturday we will be hosting our 50th virtual visit, yay! However, because I have been busy with other things and it takes awhile to upload and edit the videos, I only have the first 12 episodes on our YouTube Channel so far. The others will be added as soon as I am able to. Also, if anyone is interested in training their own dog to become a therapy dog like Doxie and Fozzy, we started the Bear Mountain Therapy Dog Training Club and meet twice a week to train our dogs to learn what they need to pass the therapy dog test. Dogs must be fully vaccinated and handlers must sign a waiver, then sign up for any training classes. Classes are free to the public. For more information about our virtual visits or to join our therapy dog training classes, people can visit our website, can email us at bmtherapydogs@gmail[dot]com, or can call us at 559-549-HOPE (4673).