Friends, Volunteering, Dogs: 3 Things I Love That Aren’t Running!

Tail Waggin’ Tutors: A Story of Volunteering, Dogs, and Making a Difference: 
It is no surprise to reader’s of this blog that I LOVE dogs…. I mention mine often, and they are my 4 legged fur children. I am also very blessed with a small group of amazing and supportive friends. And… I volunteer, and have always loved helping people any way I can. This blog focuses on those things, and not running. It is about a great friend, her awesome dogs, and an outstanding volunteer program she runs. Enjoy…..
You have all heard me mention J, a very, very dear friend of mine. Well, Jen and her husband have an amazing program that incorporates two things I love: helping people and dogs. I love my dogs, who doesn’t really? But, I love their dogs… they are hobby breeders of Cane Corso Mastiffs, and you fall in love with each and every one of them. They have amazing personalities and are all so loving.
Anyway, they also have a program called Tail Waggin’ Tutors that two of their dogs that are CDI therapy dogs are involved in. This has nothing to do with running, but, this blog is about life as well, and to me, a program that helps people and involves dogs is a great thing. I am highlighting her program because of this.  I was also lucky enough to actually observe this program in person, which made me love it even more!
Here are the questions I asked them:
1: What is your bio/background?   My husband (Ron) grew up in a family of dog breeders, so you could say that caring/training/raising dogs is in his blood. He welcomed his first Cane Corso in 1999.  I had one dog growing up, a german shephard, who passed when I was 14 years old.  The loss of my canine friend had broken my heart, and I swore off owning another dog! 
2: How did your kennel Firehorse Cane Corso begin?  When Ron approached me about adding a dog to our family, I was hesitant.  However, we visited several dog breeders until we found the one that just touched our hearts.  I once again realized that the love and loyalty that dogs provide is stronger than most relationships between humans.  From there, we grew our pack – importing dogs from Europe.  We began attending and participating in dog shows and other working events – Firehorse Cane Corso was created in 2005 and we delivered our first litter in 2006. 
3: What was your reasoning for getting dogs certified as therapy dogs?  One thing both Ron and I are passionate about – it’s our dogs.  We are very active in our community with our dogs – the dogs are overly socialized, attend school, and have fun at the playground with the neighborhood kids.  We once had a neighbor’s child knock on the door and ask if Nani could come out and play!  With that said, we decided that we’d like to somehow give back to the community. I found how my dogs act as a therapist for me – they comfort me when I am sad, stand behind me when I am stressed, and give me a reason to stay healthy!  The love is so powerful, and I wanted others to be able to feel this. 
I began researching community service activities including canines, and stumbled across the TDI Company (Therapy Dog International).  After talking to a TDI handler, I realized this was something I wanted to do.   TDI dogs need to pass a series of tests in order to be certified as a therapy dog.  I’m not just saying tricks and obedience either.  We had to also pass a series of health tests – since most therapy dogs visit with people that are ill and in the hospital.  We have been part of the Therapy Dog program for about 3 years now. 
4: How did the reading program start? Explain the concept of the program, too.  I began the TDI program working at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia.  After my first visit, at this time without my dog, I was devastated.  These children are deeply sick – many of them with no hope for a healthy future.  I saw how the canine visitors brought smiles to the children, their parents, and even the hospital staff!  For the 15 minute visit, the children forgot about their sicknesses, and played.  Their laughter was so incredible.  I decided that I wanted to put a spin on the Therapy Dog Program, and decided to partake in the Tail Waggin’ Tutors program.  TDI Company offers all the materials for a handler to create their own program.  Basically, I was responsible for contacting a local school, discussing and creating the program, and keep my fingers crossed that the Principal would agree to have my LARGE dog in his school!!!  I was accepted at the Kings Highway Elementary School.  The Principal, Stevan Lefever, was a huge supporter and interested in seeing how the students academics would improve with their new tutors, the dogs! (see more about the program below)
5: What was your initial impression of the program when it was presented to you and when the program first started? The Tail Waggin’ Tutors program is specifically a Reading Program.  Studies have proven that children who struggle with reading, will feel more comfortable reading to a dog.  A dog will not tell the child that they are mispronouncing a word, will not pressure the child to read faster, and will not make the child feel insecure if they stutter.  Therefore, the child has no issue reading out loud to the dog and with that, they end up improving their reading skills.  My husband and I are huge supporters of kids succeeding in school – so this program was a no brainer for us.
I was assigned with the Reading Teacher, Mrs. Maureen Pacana, and together we created the program.  We were using the summer school session as a pilot.  Mrs. P was tasked to report all of her findings to the School Board.  I thought it was best to have an Orientation with the children and their teachers to introduce them to our dogs, teach them how to approach a dog, and explain the program.  I found wonderful materials on the AKC website – material such as coloring books that instruct how to greet a dog, a word puzzle of the different dog breeds, and several other learning games that were all related to the subject of dogs but appropriate for children.  I provided this to the teachers in advance, who worked with the students to prepare them for our first visit, the Orientation.  Imagine my surprise when we walked into the gymnasium and the children had made “Welcome Banners” with our names on it!   The children were so excited to meet us!  Our orientation was so much fun, we dressed up Dorian in costumes, he showed off some tricks and obedience.  We played games where the children interacted with Dorian, learning how to greet a strange dog.  Everyone left there with such a positive attitude about the program, we were so excited to get started.
Each child selected for the program had met a certain criteria – mostly their grades were below average, they were in danger of failing, and their parents needed to sign a release form.  Each child is given 15 minutes with Dorian and/or Trinity.  The child is responsible for bringing a book that interests them.  We have our own section in the school, with sitting mats.  If the children struggle – we as the handlers are NOT to interfere.  We are taught that if the children ask questions, we are to tell them broad answers such as “sound it out” or “try your best.”  Again, the program is designed for the students to just read without worrying about their errors.  The teachers meet with the children individually to discuss and evaluate their reading session. 
6: Explain how the program is running now? How has the school/community received it?  The program is about to start its 3rd season in 2012 at Kings Highway Elementary School.  We have actually had teachers from other school districts contact us and inquire on expanding the program.  However, there are no funds for this program offered by the School Districts.  As well, this is all voluntary hours for the handlers – Ron and I.  Since I work full time, that leaves Ron to lead the program solo.  All of the hours are completed during the day, Monday through Friday.
7: Do you have a story or example of something with this program over the years that has stuck with you?  My goodness, there are so many stories.  I will mention at least two, as both broke our hearts and I believe just reinforced that this is the exact reason we participate in this program.  There was a student reading to Dorian, he was struggling a bit and threw the book down – ran out to the teacher.  The teacher asked him why he was upset.  The student kept replying that he “was stupid.”  The teacher asked:  Did Ms. Jen say you were stupid?  Answer – No.  Did Mr Ron say you were stupid?  Answer – no.  Did Dorian say you were stupid?  Answer – no.  Then who said you were stupid?  Answer – my mom and dad.  Heart breaking.  I could have cried right then and there and actually still tear up every time I recall this story.  After the teacher calmed the student, he rejoined the reading circle.  He ended up cuddling up with Dorian and read his poem straight with no issues.  I was so proud for this boy.  (I actually was there for this one, it really was heartbreaking to hear that his parents call him stupid.)
Another story deals with a little girl who had a mental disability.  She came to visit Dorian at one of his reading sessions.  She was playing with his ears, touching his paws, and twirling with my pony tail.  She kept petting Dorian (who was as big as she was) and just wanted to continue to “talk” to him.  The teachers were all flabbergasted – speechless.   I found out that this particular little girl does not like human touch.  She also never talks.  Her parents struggle every day to connect with her – as she does not “like” to be hugged/touched and refuses to talk about her day.  Here in 5 minutes with Dorian, she was sitting in my lap and discussing her day with my dog.  It’s stories like these two that stick with us.  It reminds us that there are children in this world who are very unfortunate.  If my dog and I can give these children a memory of something good – then we will continue this program forever.  Also, we are helping these children to overcome their struggles with reading – something that you need to be able to do every day in your life.
8: Any plans for expansion?  We would LOVE to expand.  We have a total of 6 Firehorse Dogs that are certified Therapy Dogs.  Again, the problem is funding and finding volunteers (who are also certified TDI Handlers) who are available during the school hours. 
9: Have you been given any information on impact of the program on reading ability?  This is the most amazing part of the program…..the results speak for themselves.  Children who originally averaged a D in reading, ended the Tail Waggin’ Tutors Program with an average of a B+.  Not only that, but as the dog handler, we have seen how the children built relationships with our dogs.  They made posters to cheer us on when we participated in the National Dog Show, the principal and several teachers attended the dog show to even further their support.  Dorian received a birthday card from the students and he also had his own page in their year book!!!!
10: Any other info you would like to share?  The TDI Company offers insurance for all certified handlers and their therapy dogs.  This is a reassurance for the principal, teachers, and the parents! 🙂  Also, I have learned that the teachers are a major component to the program.  If the teachers are afraid of the dogs, the children will be afraid.  As well, the dogs will read from that energy.  It’s very important to have a solid relationship with the school.  It’s also very funny that the children, if they see me in the community, don’t have any idea who I am — until I say “I’m Dorian’s mom!!!!” LOL But they can pick Dorian out in a serious crowd of people – and have even spotted Dorian in the TV Guide!  (Before I knew he was in it!!!)
So… that is it, a little story about what I feel is a great program, making a difference in children’s lives. If you have any questions about the program or TDI, please contact