SILVERSTREET — Reuben Elementary School hosted a four-legged guest from the State Library of South Carolina recently.
Ellen Dunn, public information coordinator for the State Library, brought her therapy dog, an Australian Shepherd named Katie, to visit RES. During the visit, Dunn did a read aloud of the picture book Rescue and Jessica and she connected the service dog in that book to the role her therapy dog plays for people who are sick or hurt. Katie does more than reach out at hospitals, though. She visits schools where students can read to her.
In fact, Katie is a certified therapy dog who serves as a reading ambassador for the State Library. When Dunn started working for the State Library, she already had Katie as a practicing therapy dog. She asked for time on her lunch hour to do visits. Instead of granting that request, library administrators added reading ambassador to her duties. The final week before Christmas they visited three elementary schools, including Reuben.
The visit was arranged by RES librarian Kevin Boozer. He met Dunn during training for library community outreach that he attended in August. They talked and realized what a great fit a visit would be for the rural elementary students — many of whom have pets or animals.
Students in pre-k through fifth grade learned the difference between service dogs, who serve one individual, and therapy dogs, who provide comfort to many different people in their role. Grades third through fifth also learned about diversity and acceptance. Katie is a mismark, a dog whose coloring does not match the ideal for the Australian Shepherd. Often people don’t want a mismarked dog who could not compete in shows or be a breeding dog. Some breeders even put mismark puppies down.
“My family and I decided we wanted another dog. None of us are perfect, and I certainly am not perfect,” Dunn said. “So, an imperfectly marked dog suited us just fine.”
Dunn told the students that she thought Katie’s role as therapy dog was more rewarding than the life of showcases and pageantry she may have had if she had been a pure-marked dog. She even told the story of how a young lady in a park would not allow her Australian Shepherds to play with Katie, since Katie was a mismark.
“Katie has a good heart and is so gentle. She can tell which patients in a hospital need her by sensing it. I don’t have to tell her,” Dunn said. “I think she is perfect just the way she is.”
Dunn also took questions from the audience and gave them some information about what is required if one would like to be a certified therapy dog handler. She and Katie attended “dog college” for extended training and they passed.
Even though Katie has learned many commands, Dunn used her in a teachable moment. She had Katie model a new command, one where she still is learning and sometimes fails. Then she showed how her role and handler/trainer/teacher came into play.
“I think my favorite part of her presentation was when she had Katie do a new command they are still working on,” Boozer said. “Katie did not get it done perfectly the first time, but eventually she showed she is learning it. The relationship was like that of student-teacher and helped show students it is okay to make mistakes while they are learning.”
Dunn also donated copies of Rescue and Jessica to the RES library.
“I also like how well she connected her message to literacy and reading,” Boozer said. “Some of our students already learned about helping dogs when we read the South Carolina Award Nominee novel Chester and Gus during library time. This really connected their prior knowledge to real-world experience.”
“This was an awesome visit, “said Betsy Petersen, first grade teacher. “My students loved meeting Katie and look forward to reading Rescue and Jessica again. It is such a heartwarming story.”
The visit and message reinforced Reuben’s SOAR mantra where students strive to do their best; own their actions; always work together and respect themselves and others.