No bones about it — Mitzvah dogs help others

As loyal readers know, “Mitzvot from the Heart” showcases boys and girls who use their unique skills and interests to help others and make a real difference in the community. It’s only fair then to praise our four-legged friends who do their part in making the world a kinder place as well. After all, a dog can perform a variety of good deeds, such as boost confidence in a child who struggles with reading, enable a disabled adult in a wheelchair to push open a door, and offer companionship to a lonely elderly person. It’s about time we give these mitzvah mutts their well-deserved moment in the spotlight.

Every pooch has a purpose, including Bailey who lends a furry paw in the special reading program at Wild Horse Elementary School in Chesterfield. Wearing a blue harness and name tag that signals she is on duty, the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier visits a fifth grade classroom every week with her owner 13-year-old Sydney Aaranson, who looks forward to her after-school routine that started more than a year ago as her ongoing mitzvah project.

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“I like to bring Bailey to school so that we can help change lives of other kids. It makes me feel good when we walk into the building and see everyone smiling because the dog is there,” says Sydney, who celebrated Bailey’s “bark mitzvah” complete with a handmade tallis, yarmulke, mini Consecration Torah, and party with relatives.

As a canine classmate, Bailey takes her job seriously. The 30-pound dog settles onto a bright colored mattress decorated with fish pillows and greets each student who sits next to her with a wet kiss. The children love the dog’s affection and stroke her silky beige coat as they begin to read the pages of Owlbert. Bailey lays there the whole time, sticking out her wet tongue and panting as if she can’t wait to hear what happens next in the story. When someone stumbles over a word like “mincemeat,” happy-go-lucky Bailey doesn’t even notice. In fact, Bailey doesn’t care if the student is a boy or girl, black or white, fat or skinny, slow or fast, rich or poor. The dog just wants to be loved, and the feeling is mutual.

“The dog provides a non-threatening entity for the child to read to. If the student is below reading level or is self conscious about reading, the dog doesn’t judge them or correct them. The dog is on their level, plus it’s exciting to have a dog at the school,” says Bill Dahlkamp, a program director at Support Dogs, Inc., which is a national nonprofit organization based in St Louis that trains dogs to serve individuals at schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and health care facilities. Currently, 31 dogs are trained to help in local elementary schools and in 13 branches of the St Louis Public Library. To qualify to be a reading dog, the animal has to complete a six-week advanced obedience class or a 12-week training program with a staff recommendation, says Dahlkamp.

The purpose of the PAWS for Reading Program is to act as an incentive for the children to read and write, as well as encourage social skills. At a time when school budgets are tight and the challenge to meet a wide spectrum of academic needs is overwhelming, having a dog in the classroom makes good sense.

“The service dog motivates students who may not otherwise do their independent reading for homework. Knowing that they have to be prepared to read to the dog makes them practice,” says Amy Orr, a reading specialist at Wild Horse Elementary.

“Also, studies show that students read more fluently when they are moving, so some of the kids like to read out loud while they pet Bailey. It’s more relaxing for them.”

Sounds like Bailey gives new meaning to “teacher’s pet.”

“I can train a parent volunteer to just listen and not correct the student, but it’s only natural to correct a child out loud. With Bailey, I never have worry about her jumping in and fixing the mistake. Sometimes a child needs time to self correct. Bailey gives these kids the gift of time,” adds Orr.

If you have a mitzvah dog or know of someone who has benefited from one, share your story with me at [email protected] For more information about the training programs at Support Dogs, Inc., call 314 997 2325.

“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Visit her Web site at www.mishegasofmotherhood.com.