(Olympia takes a study break)
Story and photos by Jason Grotelueschen
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
Reading books out loud is a familiar task for elementary-school students, but 2nd-graders at Hope Lutheran School often find a particularly friendly 4-legged visitor in the classroom to make the experience a bit more special.
On most Thursdays during the school year, a gentle 5-year-old yellow lab named Olympia pays a 1-hour visit to the classroom along with her handler, Caryn Burnett Ridings, as students like Olivia Turner (all pictured below) take turns reading their favorite books aloud:
Burnett Ridings raises puppies for Canine Companions for Independence and the Delta Society, who qualify and certify animal/handler teams to go into hospitals, libraries, schools, and hospice facilities (see this related Evening Magazine video segment from KING 5). This is Burnett Ridings’ 2nd year of doing this work with Olympia (they also regularly visit the Everett Public Library, Concordia Lutheran, and Swedish Hospital’s rehab and pediatric facilities).
The goal of their work, according to Burnett Ridings, is to let the dog “create a level of stress-free comfort for everyone” in which people are able to open up and interact with the dog one-on-one — in a way that they may not do with other people. “That’s when the magic happens. The dog just wants to be touched and listen, and people respond to that.”
She added that teachers can then use those moments and follow-up on them with the individual students, building on success and helping students to be more confident. She takes guidance from teachers for future visits — “what to watch for or anticipate with particular students, whether we should sit on floor or engage more or less. We work according to what the teachers suggest and what the students respond to.”
When we stopped by Hope Lutheran for Olympia’s visit, it was clear that the students were happy to spend time with their canine friend. Benjamin Marion (pictured above) said “reading to a dog makes it easier — the dog listens.” Other students praised Olympia for being “so nice; not crazy like my dog” and “just like a person, but a person with 4 legs who listens to us.”
Hope Lutheran Principal Kristen Okabayashi, herself a parent of sons whom she has seen grow and benefit by reading with Olympia, said she “loves the program” and expects it to continue at Hope in future years. With her sons, she saw first-hand how the unique experience helped them become more comfortable readers.
Most of the students Burnett Ridings works with are in kindergarten through 2nd grade (at Hope last year, kindergarteners participated with Olympia as well when schedules permitted) At locations like the Everett library, she’s also seen great progress with teenage children who struggle with reading, some coming from immigrant families who speak very little English. Many initially “didn’t want to read to a dog, or to anybody, because they don’t want people to know.” But soon the teenagers were reading out loud — “and for our next visit, they were the first to sign up.”
Burnett Ridings said that service dogs like Olympia are trained to stay in a “downward position” and to be calm and let people approach her (“We could tell her to ‘stay’ for several hours”), with no licking or sudden movements. The dogs only respond to commands from their handlers, for the safety of everyone who interacts with them.
When Olympia visits patients or disabled individuals in hospitals and rehab facilities, Burnett Ridings finds that the simple presence of a dog reduces the stress level and makes people feel at ease. For some patients who have been become seriously ill or injured, “reaching to pet Olympia is the first physical move they’ve made” in months. “She’ll often jump on the bed with the person, and they’ll just rest there with their arms around her. They forget about themselves and reach out.”
Burnett Ridings (email contact here) trained Olympia from the time she was 8 weeks old until she was a year-and-a-half old and eventually adopted her, and she’s preparing to train another puppy starting this summer. She enjoys the process and says by the time the dogs are 10 weeks old, “they know all of the necessary commands and then you refine them – or the dogs refine us!”
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