A quick visit to the classrooms at Crestview School of Inquiry in Clive when Ares, Zeus, or Apollo are on site is all it takes to understand that Akita puppies, children, and reading belong together.“I just put out a note to the teachers and let them know thatwe had some Akita puppies that were willing to come in and read with their children, and immediately we got a response,” said Ann Reynolds, librarian and Title I math instructor at Crestview. “So we began a schedule and the schedule has been evolving.”A local doctor, Douglas Hoisington, initially volunteered two older Akitas to be involved in a classroom setting, but the experience overwhelmed the dogs.But Hoisington and his dog trainer Kate Odell saw potential value in the visits. Today, his three puppies – Zeus, Ares and Apollo – have been groomedto interact with elementary students.“I knew I wanted to expose the puppies to children, and I wanted them to be unafraid and comfortable around children of all ages,” Odell said. “And the students have a rare opportunity to see them grow from puppies to adults.”The dogs and children have much in common. Both share a time in life full of firsts and a mutual responsibility to learn and grow from their experiences. The puppies are in training to be therapy dogs, and the students help with the gentling and socialization process. The young students are learning everything from how to be compassionate friends and citizens, to how to read or understand mathematics. Learning such lessons with an enthusiastic, nonjudgmental dog at your side helps students meet with success. Both children and puppies are present to learn, grow, and reap the positive benefits of interacting with one another along the way.“The program started with a small group of 10 or 12 elementary students in the library,” Reynolds said. “Then the preschool children joined in during their library time. We then had some children asking, ‘Why don’t I get to see the puppies?’ so we asked teachers if classrooms would be willing to have the dogs visit. Now more and more children are interacting with the puppies during reading classes.”“We are thrilled to help the reading program evolve,” Odell said. “The puppies don’t judge the kids if they mispronounce a word or don’t know a word. They are great listeners and are very neutral about the whole experience. I’m excited that we can create an environment that helps kids learn.”In just two short months, Odell has noticed children who have never had exposure to dogs before becoming more receptive to petting and even feeding the puppies. She believes that socially it benefits the kids as well as the dogs.Reynolds notes there are many additional spin-off benefits to working with the dogs.“I know it helps lower stress, including for the adults and teachers,” Reynolds said. “You can get locked in your own little world, in your own little schedule, and all of a sudden a dog walks in and it just all falls away. You remember what’s really important here.“Once when Dr. Hoisington was visiting with all three dogs, we were just walking down the hall and there was a teacher trying to calm down a student. The teacher said, ‘He just needs a little puppy time.’ The student had tears rolling down his face, but in the course of about two minutes he went from mid-meltdown to tears disappearing and the weight of the world was no longer on his shoulders. Petting the puppies changed his day.”Reynolds recalls at parent-teacher conferences learning of a student from Mexico who was very upset because he had to leave his dog behind when relocating to America. The parent expressed great interest in the program and gratitude for the canine experience afforded to her son at school.Teachers are also taking it upon themselves to exploit the unexpected academic benefits by creating writing and reading assignments that incorporate the dogs. Lessons in language, math, reading, social studies, science, health, nutrition, physical education, social, emotional, leadership skills, and critical thinking can be taught or enhanced by including the canine companions. Students of all ages in both general and special education can participate.With the program in its comparative infancy, Reynolds has numerous goals for the future.“I hope this program can continuewith the positive support of school administration, parents, and community,” Reynolds said. “I hope the students’ reading and social skills improve. I hope when they see a 120 pound dog students know how to interact anddon’t run the other way. I hope it helps lower their stress. We’re super grateful to Dr. Hoisington and Kate for sharing their dogs. This is a tremendous opportunity.”For schools considering including canines in their day, Reynolds encourages tapping into local resources to build a bridge between the school and the community.“It’s important to bring people from the outside in to help us with our children,” Reynolds said. “I would hope that people would consider thinking about new ideas, of ways to put students in touch with something real. Hands-on, real life experiences. That’s what I really love to see. Real interactions.”Odell also looks ahead and sees a bright future.“The puppies are about to take a test and finish their American Kennel Club Puppy Star class,” Odell said. “In April they will go on to the Canine Good Citizen Program, and finally to the Therapy Dog International class where they will become certified to be therapy dogs. They can potentially go in to a variety of facilities and benefit many people who need their help. The students are helping prepare the puppies for their future jobs in life.”“It’s nice not to be just on the receiving end,” Reynolds said. “Our kids are on the giving end, too.”These Akita puppies, whose ancestors were once used to hunt bears, have retained the beauty, power, and independence of their breed, now coupled with a detectable affinity for children. Just witness Ares, Zeus or Apollo walking proudly through school hallways, or being alert and responsive to fledgling young readers in a classroom, and one might say the pups are also helping prepare the children for their future jobs in life.Exactly who is giving – and who is receiving – becomes impossible to discern. Everybody wins.Curious students have many questions about Zeus, Ares, and ApolloDoes their fur change color when they get older?What do they eat?What are those jaggedy things in Zeus’s mouth?Does he bite?Why is his tongue out?How big will his teeth get?Do you brush his teeth?Do his teeth fall out?Why is his tail curly?Does he have grandparents?Why does he sit on a blanket?How heavy is he?What are the spots on the bottom of his feet?Does he live in the house?
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