Please Read To Me: M interviews Sofie, a literary assistance dog
By M, with assistance of Rose KappCoquitlam, B.C., Canada
Every dog has its story. Mine? Well it started with a puppy mill, then street life, dueling siblings, neglect, SPCA, and finally, retirement in a comfortable home. Hi, I'm Mischka, but when I'm writing, I go by the name "M". I'm a 13 year-old street-wise, rescued female Keeshond. One day I'll tell you the details of my life, but I'm more interested in giving you my slant on life as a dog.
The other day I started thinking about dog jobs. We all know the traditional ones police work, guarding, hunting, herding. These usually take a specific breed, and generally, a large one. But what of your average canine? Smaller, no particular breed? Well, I've discovered a new series of interesting and diverse occupations on the therapy side of work. Through the human grapevine, I found out about Sofie, a literary assistance dog.
I met up with Sofie at home with her human, Barbara Swanston, and dog 'sister', Shiraz, an Australian labradoodle. After hellos and checking her habitat (a dog thing), we started chatting.(Photo: Sofie, photo by Barbara Swanston)
M Could you give me some background about yourself?
S I was born in 2006 and I'm a black miniature poodle. I was a Little Paws rescue. They are such good people. Barbara took me home and things are going well.
M How did you and Barbara come to the decision to find you a career?
S Humans say I have a sweet temperament. I think meeting 3 year-old neighbour Rachael helped. She had a fear of our kind. I kind of kept calm around her, let her approach me and smiled a lot. No barking is a big thing too. Now we are best friends. I went through obedience training and learned how to act in public with other dogs and humans. I guess that's when Barbara found out about R.E.A.D.®.
S Yes, it's a program based out of Salt Lake City. Its mission is to improve the literacy skills of children through the assistance of registered therapy teams as literacy mentors. You can find out all about them on the web (www.therapyanimals.org).
M Big words. Can you explain a bit simpler?
S Sorry. I let the kids read to me. Humans help with dog interpretation. You know, I don't care that kids trip over words, pause or have questions. I just want them to relax and enjoy the story.
M How did you start?
S I was staying with a friend while Barbara was away. Pat's nephew, Colin has dyslexia and Barbara wanted to see if he would like to read to me to determine if I liked being read to. Heck, I don't read at all, so having someone read stories to me is great. I loved it and so did Colin. In fact, Colin reads to me and Pat's dog when we visit and every day to his own dog. Then Barbara did some research and made sure the Pacific Animal Therapy Society screened me so that I really had the skills to take on therapy work. You know, didn't freak out with kids, sudden movements, crowds, and lots of attention, that sort of thing. Guess we have to be insured too. Barbara went on the web and made contact with Terry Pratt in Surrey who teaches the READ courses. BC has about 25 reading teams.
M So besides Colin, have you had other kids read to you?
S Oh yes. After training, Barbara and me had to find a school where we could help. Counselors in Seaview School in Port Moody liked the idea, and in October of 2008, we began working with 3 children on a weekly basis. Each child reads for about 30 minutes one-on-one with me. Barbara helps me ask questions about the stories and interprets my responses for the kids. In January Birchland School in Port Coquitlam began an intensive 12-week pilot program and might expand that. This is such a new idea but it works. Kids that go through these programs love to attend so there is less absenteeism, their social skills improve, and reading ability increases. They learn to love to read. Plus they get a special folder and stickers for every book they complete.
M Any difficulties?
S Not really. Sometimes I fall asleep, but you know dogs, we always listen. By the time I get home, I'm tuckered out and sleep like a puppy. This is a new type of therapy, so sending the message out and getting support is tricky. There are not a lot of dog listeners out there yet, but it would be great to be a community of teams so that we can exchange information and not feel isolated. Did you know there's scientific proof that dogs calm people? I like that fact.
M What else do you like about being a READ dog?
S I have a special READ bandana I wear and when I know I'm going to work, I get real excited. It's so much fun. The kids like me and we build a relationship with each other. Sometimes I get to choose the book. I also like the treat I get at the end of each session. I'll even do a little dance to get it.
M Any other perks?
S I get lots of attention. The classmates of the reading children are curious about me and sometimes I have to introduce myself to them. Barbara wrote a book "Sofie's Story", so the children get to know a little about me. I get to go where dogs usually can't like school staff rooms. I even got to go to a reading at the Metrotown Chapters where I met the reps from Paramount. They invited me and some others to see the premier of the movie, "Hotel for Dogs". I sat on a tall stool and calmly greeted the people who attended. Didn't get any popcorn though.
M Any advice?
S Yes. I believe dogs should have a job, even a simple one like making sure the household runs well. It gives a dog a sense of purpose. People should take in account the dog's personality and traits. You see, I think I was born for this; I'm always on task, focused and ready for fun. I want to do it and isn't it great to have a job you love?
M Thanks Sofie.
I want to thank Barbara Swanston and Rose Kapp for helping write this interview. Keyboards are not designed with dogs in mind.
3118 Daybreak Avenue, Coquitlam, BC V3C 2G6
About The Author: Mischka is a 13 year old female keeshond that lived with a street person in Vancouver. Recently, she decided to retire to the suburb of Coquitlam with a nice family. Besides bossing everyone around, including 2 male keesies, she has decided to do some writing, dictating to Rose Kapp, who knows how to type and spell.