(Editor’s Note: OMPer Barb Wunsch writes about Lani, the Reading Dog who holds a special place in the hearts of all new readers at OMPS and Peninsula Community Library. As Barb notes below, it truly is magical to watch kids read to Lani, who is so patient, loving and calm, even in a room full of active preschoolers. – jb)
Anyone who spends time around Old Mission Peninsula School (OMPS) or Peninsula Community Library knows how lucky we are to have Candy Gardner and her reading dog Lani in our community. For those who aren’t familiar with Candy and Lani, they have worked with many students who’ve benefited from their outstanding service with the reading dog program over the past ten years. It is magical to watch Lani provide a safe, nonjudgmental, fun time for children to be able to read.
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Lani is Candy’s fourth therapy dog who’s been certified through Therapy Dogs International. Candy also has another dog, Rosie, who is currently in training. While Lani is thought of as a “Reading Dog,” her certification allows visits in any situation where therapy dogs are needed.
When Candy retired, she had the opportunity to combine two of her greatest loves: to continue to work with children and also work with her dogs. The first time she did an internet search on “Reading Dogs,” a photo popped up of a child reading to a Bernese Mountain Dog. It looked just like Candy’s dog! She also had fond memories of watching her own sons happily read to their family’s Bernese Mountain Dogs decades earlier.
Any breed of dog, including mixed breeds, can be a therapy dog. The most important parts are the temperament and training of the dog, as well as having a dedicated therapy dog handler. Candy, a passionate therapy dog handler, notes, “It is the best job, but it is a lot of work.”
Here’s Lani with some OMPS pre-schoolers as Leah Derris reads to them. (Editor’s Note: As a side note, the “Bear” book she’s reading was written by my writing pal Karma Wilson. – jb)
OMPS Co-Principal Renee Kolle says the kids love Lani. “Lani, the reading dog, is a celebrity at our school. Every student, regardless of their reading ability, jumps at the opportunity to read to Lani.”
Most reading dog programs are based on the belief that just about anything we can do to encourage children to read is a good thing. Activities we enjoy are those we tend to do more. Activities we repeat, we tend to get better at. So more reading can lead to better reading which can lead to more learning. That’s why we read to dogs! Or at least one of the reasons.
Sometimes it’s hard for us to remember what an incredibly complex process it is to learn to read, so we often take it for granted. First, we need to learn letter recognition and identification, followed by pairing sounds to letters and then blending these sounds into words. Another step is comprehending the meaning of these words in sentences, then paragraphs and more.
This becomes so automatic for most of us that we forget how complex and challenging the process of learning to read can actually be. It helps to find reading materials that match a student’s interests and independent reading level. If a student is interested in a particular subject, it can be a wonderful opportunity to read with them or to them.
Over the years, Candy and her therapy dogs have visited OMPS, Northport School and Peninsula Community Library. While the dogs were in training, they visited Munson Healthcare facilities and Tendercare Health Center. Therapy dogs need basic obedience training and an introduction to various therapy visitation situations. Some examples of therapy situations are meeting a person in a wheelchair or someone walking with the assistance of crutches.
There is an old saying that therapy dogs are born, not trained. The dog needs to be calm, confident, have a loving disposition and be comfortable with strangers. It is important for the dog to be able to receive attention and pets from strangers. The dog must be at least one year old to be tested, must be reliable, predictable and have solid basic obedience skills.
Each certification organization develops its own testing protocol. The American Kennel Club provides a list of approved organizations for Therapy Dog Certification. Therapy dog handlers need to understand basic dog obedience and be in control of their dog at all times. They must know all of the policies of the visitation locations as well as the policies of the certification organization. A background check of the therapy dog handler is usually a requirement for visitations.
Traverse City area is in need of more certified therapy dogs. Lani is in high demand and has been requested to visit several other schools. Therapy dogs are also needed in nursing homes, hospitals, hospice settings, airports, libraries, court systems and of course, the schools.
If you are interested in pursuing therapy dog training with your dog, feel free to reach out to Candy at [email protected].