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Cricket learns to read

April 5, 2011 - Amy Jo Hanna-Eckenrode
There was a great article in the Altoona Mirror on Saturday, April 2. Click here to read it online ( about Cricket, a local therapy dog, who lends a paw to help elementary school kids with their reading skills.

It’s hard to deny studies and statistics that show companion pets can improve our health (lowering stress, blood pressure, etc.), help people live longer, more fulfilling lives (for said reasons including that they give many people a purpose, a reason to keep plugging along).

I find therapy dogs to be in a class of furry angels all their own. If you’ve ever had the fortune to meet a dog/cat that has been certified or works as a therapy pet you get the sense that there is just something ‘extra’ special about the animal. Their keenly intuitive nature, extremely laid back personality holds such a calming/patient element – it’s as if these animals were given an extra helping of ‘compassion’ (if that’s even possible) that allows them the patience and understanding to serve as guide dogs and companions to people with disabilities, as well as sense illnesses, including seizures, diseases and other debilitating conditions.

I have had and met many dogs (and a few cats) that I felt would be wonderful therapy pets – the only thing that kept them from that role is actually being trained and certified as such.

Cricket, is a special 14-year-old bearded collie, who actually does more to help the children in her new classroom role by actually doing nothing – physical that is. She has the very important job of listening. And, to some, okay, many of us humans, listening is often a next to impossible feat.

What started as a suggestion from a parent who read about using therapy dogs to help boost children's reading skills, blossomed into reality thanks to an elementary teacher who embraces parent involvement as well as fun and imaginative ways to approach teaching. (Talk about a win-win situation!) The parent, who works in physical therapy, already knew Cricket, who worked as a therapy dog at her place of employment.

I still remember sitting in my kindergarten and first grade classrooms (even though it was like 498 years ago) at a big table with my classmates taking turns reading from a book – the teacher looming over us, scrutinizing every word we uttered. I remember how new and exciting yet very frightening it was to try and sound out those big, endless string of words and sentences. I felt like I couldn’t take a breath until I could read my part aloud with as few blunders and stutters as possible. The thought of everyone thinking I couldn’t pronounce the words on the pages was almost paralyzing.

With Cricket, however, (sprawled out, relaxed, just waiting for any sort of attention) serving as the main audience provides a completely different environment for the kids. Cricket simply listens. Her presence alone provides a sense of comfort to the kids. They are now the mentor allowing them to feel more in command of the situation. Cricket is non-threatening, she doesn’t judge, correct or point out mistakes. The children can maintain a sense of superiority over their canine friend and feel a natural human obligation to care for and nurture her. In such a play role, they can pretend to be teaching Cricket. They know Cricket probably doesn’t understand but a few of the words they speak – perhaps they may say, walk, treat, ride, play – but both the kids and Cricket respond to the attention, compassion, love, snuggles and unfaltering acceptance that accompanies the end of every session.

Imagine the limitless opportunities just waiting to be discovered and tried that would allow us to work ever more closely with our pets to better both of our lives.

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Cricket listening carefully to story time!


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