This blog post is written by Alicia Potenza. Alicia recently graduated from the Master Dog Trainer program at the School for Dog Trainers and is currently an intern at Highland Canine. This blog article recounts Alicia’s first-hand experience at Waggy Tales – our reading program where service dogs in training are taken into local elementary schools.
As a new dog trainer of only twenty-one years old, I have finally found my passion – training dogs. Dogs help people, and I’ve always wanted to help people by training dogs. Whether it’s a service dog, police K9, or even your pet, these amazing animals help people in numerous ways.
When I found out about Highland Canine’s reading program, I was so excited to be able to be a part of it. As someone who doesn’t spend any time around children and doesn’t have any children in my family, I wasn’t sure on how to best interact with the kids at Union Grove Elementary School in the Waggy Tales reading program. I just wanted to make sure that they had the best day.
Waggy Tales at Union Grove Elementary
When I was sitting down with service dog, Noah, awaiting the student’s arrival, I was worried about making sure that Noah and I gave those kids the best experience possible. Noah even helped keep my mind at ease. When they started piling in the room and rushing over to us, it was amazing how bright their smiles shined at just the sight of Noah.
Four boys gathered around Noah, hugging him, kissing him and asking me if they could have treats to give to him. One boy was a little shy at first – he sat off to the side and only pet Noah a few times. He had a book in his hand about weather, so I asked him if he wanted to teach Noah about it. The boy lit up and started to read.
When he started out, he would get very nervous when he stumbled on a word, so I brought Noah a little closer to him so he could pet him while reading and he laughed when Noah pawed at his leg. The boy went back to reading with Noah right next to him, his paw on the boy’s leg and the boy started reading more confidently. He was more focused and less nervous. It was truly amazing to see.
Waggy Tales at Langtree Charter Academy
The next day, we went to Langtree Charter Academy to take service dogs to their reading program. I took Tulio, a four-month-old Goldendoodle and future service dog. I sat on the floor with Tulio and the kids ran in and sat down with us. The teachers were just as excited as the kids!
One boy hugged me and thanked me for bringing Tulio – it was incredibly heartwarming to see the joy in his eyes. A few more kids came around, bouncing from dog to dog. There were three dogs in one room so they would spend a few minutes with each dog and move on to the next one. One girl showed me and Tulio a picture that she drew and told me that she has a black dog just like Tulio.
There was one boy who stayed with Tulio and I for quite some time, he was reading a book about colors. The whole time that he was reading, he was petting and looking up at Tulio at the end of each page. Right before we were about to leave, the students saw Abby, another trainer, working on the lay command with service dog Fergie and they all wanted a turn to be laid on.
Lay is a task where the dog lays on a person to add deep pressure therapy to help them relax. It is usually a task performed by autism service dogs to help autistic children if they are having a meltdown. So, when the students asked if I could get Tulio to lay on them and I said yes, they all dropped to the floor and anxiously waited. The kids thought it was so funny when Tulio laid on them but there was one boy who stood out to me – when Tulio laid on him, he didn’t find it funny.
Instead, he closed his eyes and just relaxed. He told me that he wishes he could take him home so he could finally sleep all night long. In a room full of kids, dogs and lots of excitement, this one boy found peace. He laid there for a few minutes and so did Tulio. They both relaxed together, and, in that moment, I felt so grateful to be able to give him those few minutes of peace.
I was so worried about making sure that I made it a great experience for those kids, and I believe it did accomplish that. It’s truly an honor to work with these kids at the reading programs.