Guest blog by Leslie Corn, who has formed a pet therapy team in the New York City area along with her three-year-old rescued Pomeranian, Alice.
The class of Pre-K students sat in a circle on their bright classroom rug.
“Fluffy!!!" said a little boy.
My Pomeranian Alice’s name might as well be "Fluffy" for all the times she's called that!Alice is a confident three-year-old red, brown and black ASPCA rescue dog with white feet, an abundant tail and a contagious smile. She's worked as a registered therapy dog for two years and adores her job. She regularly visits schools, libraries, hospitals, a nursing home, a senior center and various other places. She loves all people, but, truth be told, her favorite people are children. So here we were, with a class of twenty or so kids in a New York City school, along with ASPCA Animal Assisted Therapy Program Coordinator Moira Mahaney, to show the students what a rescue dog, now a therapy dog, is like.
Alice did some of her tricks: sit, down, twirl, and high-four (because, as I explained to the kids, dogs have four toes!).
"What does Alice do? As a therapy dog?" asked a girl.
"She's herself," I said. "She says hi to people with a smile. She wags her tail. You know how you can make people feel special by being yourself, by paying attention to them?" Lots of nods. "Well, that's what Alice does. And people pet her. Alice loves being petted."
I explained some of the ways to approach and touch a new dog: Be sure to ask, "May I pet your dog?”; first let the dog sniff the top of your hand; pet dogs where they can see your hand coming, like under their chins or on their chests, not from behind or on the top of the head. ("Do you like being tapped on your head?" I asked them. Heads shook no. "Dogs don't like it either.”) And when you stop petting, pull your hand back slowly, instead of quickly jerking away.
I added that most dogs don’t like to be hugged. “As huggable as Alice looks, and as loving as she is, she would prefer that you not hug her,” I explained. “She'd love it if you petted her under her chin or on her chest!"
The teacher invited everyone to greet Alice. The children formed a line and, one at a time, walked up to Alice. She waggled her tail as each child approached. Some of the children knew just how to touch Alice. But not everyone. One boy bopped Alice on the head, then snatched his hand away. Luckily, Alice, being her sweet self, just kept smiling.
And there were several huggers. I reminded the children that most dogs don’t like hugs. "But Alice would be delighted to give you a high-four!” They laughed, as Alice tapped their outstretched hands with her white paw.
One of the best things a parent can do to help a child be with a dog—and prepare the child to be comfortable and safe with dogs for a lifetime—is to teach the child how to approach and touch a dog. The lesson needs repeating, until it's ingrained.
After each child greeted Alice, he or she left the classroom for lunch. A boy had stood a few feet away during the greetings. He was the only one left in the room now.
"Don't you want to meet Alice?" his teacher said. “She’s very nice."
He shook his head. But he didn't leave.
Sometimes you save the best trick for last.
"Will you say goodbye to Alice?" I asked him. I waved at Alice. "Bye-bye."
Alice lifted her paw and waved back.
The boy's face lit up. "Bye-bye," he said and waved. Alice waved again.
He giggled. A bit of a pause, then, "May I pet your dog?"
“She would love that," I said. And he did. Gently, on her chest. Alice leaned into his hand.
And that's how Alice helped one little boy, for one moment or maybe longer, feel more confident around dogs.
The ASPCA will host a booth at the BlogHer Conference in New York City Thursday, July 16, through Saturday, July 18, and we hope you’ll come say hello! ASPCA staff will be on site to spread the word about the importance of pet adoption. We’ll also be bringing along a few furry friends to greet conference-goers.
If you’re at the conference, please stop by our booth! If you sign our pledge to adopt a pet—instead of shopping at a pet store—and post a photo of your pet on your social media channels with the hashtag #BlogHerPets, you’ll be entered to win a “Prints of Love” Alex & Ani bracelet. Hope to see you at BlogHer!