When Jamie Popper throws the Frisbee for her dog, Roo, he explodes in a flurry of fur and canine enthusiasm. He leaps into the air and does a backflip to nab the disc midair, then comes flying back to her to triumphantly show off his prize.
When it's time to play, Roo is a whirlwind – but when it's time to work, this Australian shepherd settles in and takes his job as a therapy dog seriously. He's currently undergoing extensive training so he'll be allowed to visit elementary schools, where he'll interact with students who want to read to him.
"Reading to a dog can be very therapeutic for those that struggle with reading," says Popper, who's an exceptional-student education teacher by day and a dog trainer on nights and weekends. "There tends to be immense pressure placed on kids in the classroom, and there can be a fear of ridicule for reading a word incorrectly. In a therapy session, the dog is not going to laugh or poke fun or correct the student."
Studies have shown that kids who participate in reading-dog programs see reading fluency increase anywhere from 12 to 30 percent – in addition to making them feel less self-conscious, the studies show, the presence of the dogs gives kids confidence and helps them feel relaxed and safe. But not just any dog can go to a library or a school to work with kids. The dogs have to be patient enough to lie quietly while the kids read, and they need to be able to put up with the stress of being in a busy classroom environment.
"Roo must be able to work through situations that might be scary for the average dog, like crowded hallways, fire drills and many children petting him at once," Popper says. "Roo has a great foundation for all of this training, and has the perfect temperament for therapy work."
Popper says she realized Roo's calling when her mentor, local dog trainer Leah Roberts, became ill with terminal cancer last year. While Roberts was in the hospital, Popper brought Roo to visit.
"The moment she saw him, her eyes lit up and a smile came across her face," Popper says. "There was an immediate change in her demeanor and attitude. After being told she had less than a year to live, it's hard to imagine anyone smiling. I saw something special that day. Roo looked at her, tilted his head and seemed to know that she needed comforting. ... And after watching that interaction, I knew it was time to take our training to the next level."
Roo is working with the trainers at Dog Willing, DogSmith of Northeast Orlando in Oviedo (where Popper works) to prep for the job. All of his training has been done using positive reinforcement techniques, and Popper recommends that anyone interested in learning more about training their dog to do therapy work look for a qualified force-free trainer through the Pet Professional Guild (petprofession alguild.com) and read up on therapy dogs at petpartners.org.
"The road to becoming a therapy dog is a long but rewarding one," she says.
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