PUPPY LOVE – SPCA volunteers Cheryl Armstrong and her Newfoundlander dog Ripley enjoyed their first visit to Father Lacombe School

Father Lacombe partners with SPCA to improve literacy

Children see the many benefits working with therapy dogs

Father Lacombe Kindergarten students get to have a little bit of puppy love to help with their studies through a new community outreach partnership with the Red Deer and District SPCA.

The program combines the Community Outreach Program at the SPCA and a literacy program for students at Father Lacombe School to bring in pets and their owners and create a safe, non-judgmental space for students to read.

The students read books to the dogs with the help of their teacher or teacher assistant, along with the dog’s owner.

A similar program already exists in the Red Deer Public Library with a child’s reading program in partnership with the SPCA.

“We’ve agreed to try out the project for a year and see how it goes. Cheryl Armstrong (SPCA volunteer) and her dog Ripley will come and see us every Wednesday afternoon that she is available and we are available. Eventually, it’ll turn into more of a focus on literacy for us, and then also talking about empathy and how to take care of animals,” said Laurie McIntosh, the Kindergarten teacher at Father Lacombe.

Last Wednesday was the first day of the program within the school. Students from the class met Armstrong and Ripley in small groups, where the children would get to know the volunteers. During this time, the students were able to read aloud to the volunteers in a safe, fun place while learning more about behaviour with animals.

The SPCA Community Outreach Program is available in a number of facilities such as hospitals, seniors’ centres, libraries and even the Ponoka Centennial Centre. All volunteers and animals are trained adequately before entering into the facilities, and the animals are put in a variety of situations to enable safety for children.

According to Eva Sarson, community outreach coordinator for the Red Deer SPCA, therapy dogs are beneficial for helping to reduce blood pressure, anxiety and stress. She said for children, the animals could be used to create a space to build confidence in reading and animal socialization.

“We are in with a few children’s programs, but Father Lacombe is one of our first major schools. We are with the Red Deer Library and have been for a year. Only children evaluated dogs can be part of that and there are two evaluations. After six months of working with seniors and being in hospitals and around adults, we have to then do the evaluation for children so that they can qualify to be in with them,” Sarson said.

“We partner with places like ExtendiCare in Red Deer, the Lacombe hospital, Ponoka Centennial and the Bethany Centres in Red Deer and Sylvan Lake. As well, we visit the hospice in Red Deer, The Gathering Place in downtown Red Deer and the Downtown Red Deer Public Library, where we do reading tales. There are quite a few smaller senior centres as well. In Blackfalds, there is a program with Big Brothers Big Sisters.”

Currently, there are 25 volunteer pairs registered in the program, with only four having been trained so far to work with children specifically.

“Ripley is a therapy dog and she’s gone through a few programs. The first one she went through was to make sure she was good with people in general, and we went into a dementia ward. The trainers take animals through to make sure that they are okay with wheelchairs and walkers and sudden or loud noises,” said Armstrong.

Armstrong and Ripley did the same sort of exposure training in a room full of children doing activities. This allowed owners and trainers to see how the animals might react in a variety of environments.

“Sometimes we are asked to go to expos and things like that, but right now Ripley and I are participating in a reading program. Basically the kids just read to the dog. It’s non-judgmental because the dog just sits there and listens happily. I’m here to help if the kids get stuck on a word or something like that,” Armstrong said.

“The idea is just to have a safe, non-judgmental space for the kids to practice their reading.”

Sarson said she knew from the start that Armstrong and Ripley would be a great team choice to work with children.

“I knew Cheryl and Ripley were positively going to make it through with flying colours. I took them out to an event and a child came right up to Ripley’s face – which is always a no-no – in a crowded room, where a balloon popped right as the child was in Ripley’s face,” she said.

“He just kind of looked over to see what it was, but in most cases that would have ended badly. That’s how I knew for sure that they would be a great team to work with children. Ripley didn’t spook easy and Cheryl had the patience.”

Sarson was very excited to be able to bring the program into Lacombe, but especially into a new school.

“I’m just so happy to be out there and be a part of improving literacy with children. The fact that we can use our K9 Companion teams to do this is just wonderful. I’m so happy about it,” she said.

“I know it’s going to be a great partnership and I hope to continue doing more programs like that in the future. As well, I just want this to reach as far as possible. We’re always looking for volunteers with great dogs that would fit into this program.”




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