This story about the CHAPPS Reading With Dogs program at 150 House Elementary School first appeared in the Tribune’s Casual Country edition at the end of June. The program resumed this fall at the school. CHAPPS leaders are hoping to expand the program to other schools in Williams Lake if more volunteers can be found.
There is a fluffy white carpet and some bright red cushions in the corner of a quiet room at 150 Mile House Elementary School.
Nestled among a few pillows Siegi Pfadisch is reading to Liesl, who is snuggled in his lap.
Every once in a while Siegi reaches out his hand to pet Liesl gently on the head.
Liesl is a Vizsla companion and education dog who belongs to Linda Robertson.
Periodically, as Siegi reads, he and Robertson will have a conversation about what he has been reading.
Siegi is keenly interested in birds and animals so his reading with Liesl and Linda involves a lot of books on these subjects. They also play word search and flash card games related to animals, insects and birds.
Over the winter and spring Siegi, Grade 6 (last year) student, also conducted his own research to record the tracks of animals and bird sightings around his rural home at 150 Mile House.
Siegi said he recently recorded the tracks of a coyote that was trying to get into their chicken house.
“I am learning too,” Robertson said. “Siegi has a great memory.”
Robertson and Liesl come to 150 Mile Elementary School once a week for an hour to read with Siegi.
Siegi is one of seven students at 150 Mile elementary who have been chosen for the school’s reading with dogs program designed to help students develop more confidence in their oral reading skills, said Natalie Ohlhauser, the school’s learning assistance teacher.
“I notice there is definitely an improvement in reading and confidence in reading aloud with students who have taken the reading with dogs program,” Ohlhauser said.
Robertson and Liesl are members of the Cariboo Hoofbeats Assisted Activity Program Society (CHAAPS) visiting and education program with companion dogs which has been operating in the Cariboo for 11 years.
Robertson also volunteers with her other dog, a little Brussels Griffon, named Tavie.
Tavie is matched with Dennis Binette, a Grade 2 student (last year) who likes to read funny or cartoon stories that make him laugh out loud.
Dennis likes Tavie to lie or sit close to him as he reads and rewards Tavie with a dog treat at the end of every session.
Brooke Monk a Grade 3 student (last year) and loves stories about dogs, cats and princesses. Her favourite book is Frozen. She enjoys reading once a week with Luigi, a perky little terrier.
At the moment, there are three Williams Lake area members and their dogs who are certified with the program.
In addition to Robertson they are retired veterinarian Eileen Alberton and her Terrier Cross, Luigi, and the newest recruit, Heather Gorrell and her Pomeranian, Shelby.
Alberton said she heard about the program while working with Robertson in the Williams Lake office for the 2015 federal election and thought it would be a great way to enjoy an activity with her dog and give back to the community.
“I can see the confidence building in my student,” Alberton said.
“And when I walk Brooke back to class it is a special time for all the students we meet along the way to visit with us and to ask questions about what we are doing.”
“I read to Luigi,” answers Monk proudly.
Gorrell said she wishes the reading with dogs program was available when she was a shy student struggling with reading aloud.
“I like the idea that I can make a difference to help a child go through school in a more enjoyable way,” Gorrell said.
The CHAAPS program started in Quesnel in 2006 and expanded to 150 Mile House Elementary in 2014 with the approval and assistance of principal Calvin Williams and Natalie Ohlhauser.
Seven 150 Mile elementary students have participated in the program since 2014.
Robertson said they would like to expand the reading program further and have a visiting program at the Seniors Village as well but they need more volunteers with their dogs in order to do that.
“The program has started again this fall at 150 Mile Elementary School and we will expand it to elementary schools in Williams Lake if we can find more volunteers,” Robertson said.
CHAAPS has rigorous screening and temperament testing for every dog that participates in the program. Once the dog passes the screening evaluation the volunteer handler and dog go through orientation and training.
Once certified the commitment for members is one hour a week for a minimum of 10 weeks.
Dogs in the program have a uniform to wear featuring a red collar, harness, kerchief and leash. When the red bags with their gear come out and they get to the school, the dogs are happy and excited.
“Their heads come up and their tails wag,” Robertson said. “The children and dogs quickly get to know each other and enjoy their sessions.”
CHAAPS members may work in consultation with other professionals such as physiotherapists, occupational therapists, early childhood educators, social workers, teachers, mental health clinicians, speech-language pathologists and parents in order to create individualized child-specific goals.
For seniors who have had to give up their own pets to live in care facilities and children and adults with disabilities, visiting with dogs provides a social opportunity to look forward to and a distraction from pain and loneliness.
Petting and grooming a dog encourages the use of hands and arms, stretching and turning, helps to develop fine motor skills, strengthen muscles and develop co-ordination.
Visiting with a dog can also help to reduce a person’s blood pressure. Working with dogs on obedience and agility training also helps to develop social skills and self-esteem by working on leadership, planning, and sequential directions, she said.
People interested in volunteering with the CHAAPS program can check out the www.chaaps.ca website and read all about the CHAAPS and READ programs. If after reading the information people are still interested in volunteering in the program and have a calm, steady dog that likes people, Robertson says they can give her a call at 250-296-3408 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.