The first time we visited South Central Elementary, we happened to meet the After School Coordinator, Mary-Jane. I left her with my contact info, in case she wanted us to come in to visit with the after school crowd some Friday. A few weeks later, she called me and asked what kind of program we could offer. After a little thought, I decided that one of the most important things I wanted to educate children about is how to safely meet a strange dog.
When a child first sees my dog, often their response is to shriek or yell, and run over to pet him. They will put their faces right in his face, grab him, even try to kiss him. They usually don’t think to ask me if my dog is nice, or likes kids – they just charge right in. While this isn’t a problem with Max, many dogs can get frightened or feel threatened by a child running at them, making loud noises, and acting a little crazy. In an extreme circumstance, this can easily get a child bitten or seriously injured.
I had not taught a large group of children since my post-graduation days at Sycamore Run ECC, so I was very nervous. Max and I went for a long walk and a bike ride the morning before our program, and we were both relaxed when we arrived that afternoon. The kids, who ranged from kindergarten to 6th grade, were out on the playground. As if on cue, the first kid to see Max screamed “OH MY GOD A PUUUUPPPPPYYYYYYY!” and charged straight for us, pigtails flapping wildly behind her. Max and I were ready, though. I stepped in front of him, and put a hand out to stop the little girl. With a smile, I told her that she would get to meet him, but she would have to wait until we got into the classroom. Her teacher lined them up and led them back single-file to their classroom – with me and Max bringing up the rear.
Once in the classroom, all eyes were on Max. It took a lot of restraint on the part of the young students to keep from rushing over to pet him, but they stayed in their chairs, and Max stayed right by my side. I told them a little about myself, how I met Max and adopted him, and what we like to do. I explained what Pet Therapy is, and why we do visits to hospitals. Then, I got down to business: How to Safely Meet a Strange Dog.
Once I got talking, it was effortless. I started by asking the kids to list out things “friendly” dogs do, and things “unfriendly” dogs do. We acted out behaviors and body postures, and it really got everyone engaged in the discussion. The students were focused and attentive, and I went on to explain the Do’s and Don’ts of meeting a new dog:
ALWAYS ask the owner if you can pet their dog. Even if they are friendly, they might be in training.
DON’T scream or make loud noises, or run at the dog. DO move slowly and speak softly.
DO hold out a hand and let the dog sniff you – this is how they say hello!
DO respect the dog’s space. Don’t grab their face or corner them.
DON’T run if a dog chases you, or they will chase you even more.
NEVER make friends with food.
I let Max loose to meet everyone, and he made the rounds as we continued our discussion. I was asked tons of questions about Max, and the kids told me stories of their own dogs and pets. Even a few parents got involved, asking me more abut the process of becoming a Therapy Dog, and what we do every day to practice and keep our dogs well-adjusted. In the heat of the moment, I forgot to mention Kait’s interest in helping people work with their dogs – sorry, honey.
Max did some tricks, too! I demonstrated sit, down, shake (with both paws) and up. I showed the kids how he loves to roll over and get belly rubs, and they wanted to try and give him a command. I told them how I am teaching him to play dead when I yell “Bang!” and before I knew what was happening, there was a whole group of kids standing around him, pointing finger-guns and saying “Bang!” together. You wouldn’t believe how dead he played. And then they all rubbed his belly and told him he was good. I Wish I could have gotten a picture.
All in all, the program went off without a hitch. The kids were wonderful, Max was his usual charming self, and my preschool training steadied my nerves and helped me communicate clearly with the students. I got to be honest and straightforward with them about the serious responsibility of taking care of a dog, and I think we all got a lot out of it.
See you in the Fall, After School Program.