Piper makes headlines for impacting students in school reading program
Teachers are tasked with the difficult jobs of educating their students and looking for ways to make that learning fun and creative. Students can be a challenge to engage and keep interested. The goal is always to have a positive effect on academic and social growth. Unique opportunities exist for teachers in a Special Education program because there are students with learning challenges as well as the daily obstacles imposed by a global pandemic, world turmoil and rising crime. Students range in age, attention and capability which adds to the degree of difficulty in engaging them. Four educators in a Whitewater, Wisconsin school system did just that, and they not only captured attention and participation, but they super charged it.
A loveable but highly trained English cream golden retriever named Piper and her owner, Alison Keenan, provided the motivation for a class of mixed level Special Education students. During the middle of the Covid pandemic, four teachers and the dog trainer got together and created a unique opportunity to encourage students to read: a virtual reading session with a Reading Education Assistance Dog®. Their idea was especially challenging because it involved a video session with a dog living in Tennessee interacting with students from Wisconsin.
Piper is not an ordinary friendly golden retriever. She is a graduate of training aimed at assisting students with reading. This program, READing Paws®, is education provided through Intermountain Therapy Animals® and Piper is part of a Registered Team that provides just that: reading assistance. Together with her trainer, Alison, Piper is the center of the reading opportunities. Usually a one-on-one situation, this opportunity was adjusted to meet the needs of several students at a time in a classroom over 500 miles away. Reading to a dog provides a nonthreatening and enjoyable option to the stress of reading out loud. Students become engaged through their connection to the dog and forget about the challenges they may have with reading. They read to her and then explain what they just read which helps expand their comprehension. Research shows that if a student has not mastered the skill of reading before the third grade, he or she will always have challenges with academic achievement.
What were the magic ingredients of this program? Because Piper is not an ordinary dog, and this is not an ordinary story. There is magic than unfolds in this setting.
Piper came from a professional breeder in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, The Golden Choice. She was reserved months before she was born and was the choice of her forever Mom and Dad.
Keenan had been given a second chance at life after receiving a bone marrow transplant for a rare blood disorder that almost claimed her life. She felt a strong sense of needing to give back somehow and envisioned using this especially smart and loveable white dog to help her fulfill that dream.
Keenan and her dog engaged in focused dog training: first basic puppy manners and obedience followed by more intensive Canine Good Citizen training. During her work, Keenan discovered that her special dog suffered from kidney issues: Piper had only one functioning kidney. This became apparent when her endurance was not equal to other young dogs. Veterinary testing determined that Piper would require prescription food and professional oversight. Much like Keenan herself, both dog and trainer had similar kidney lab values. They were in the same stage of renal failure.
Before moving to Tennessee, Keenan approached her local library in a small Wisconsin town, Mukwonago. The librarian there allowed Piper and her dog “Mom” to begin reading to children on Thursday afternoons. ‘Paws to Read with Piper’ started with a handful of children and progressed to as many as 12, all waiting for a chance to read to Piper. Laments of “I don’t want to read” quickly changed to “I only got to read three books to Piper today” as the program took off. Piper grew to become very popular as she greeted each child with special focused attention. She loved the ribbon adorned ponytails, lighted sneakers and the promise of leftover food sometimes stuck to children’s shirts. She had a special intuition for knowing the children who needed attention the most, and she laid either in their laps or shared a paw as they read to her. Some did not even know how to read yet, so they told her about bulldozers, kitties, and their favorite superheroes. Piper was mesmerized. The success of these reading sessions encouraged Keenan to write a children’s book about how this special dog with health challenges came to realize her special intention in life to be a Reading Assistance Dog. In the book, Piper Finds Her Special, the story is told about Piper finding the magic of helping readers.
Still focused on a higher calling, Keenan and Piper remained intent on paying it forward, but now their family had relocated from Wisconsin to the state of Tennessee. With a new home, new surroundings, and new friends to be made, they engaged in Therapy Dog training. After intense training and guidance with specialized evaluators, Keenan and Piper successfully became a Registered Therapy Animal Team, and the magic started.
Keenan and Piper relocated to Tennessee but maintained a friendship with their dog sitter, Jill Rausch. Jill was a teacher in the Special Education program at Whitewater High School. Piper and Jill bonded together, as Piper was not left with just any dog sitter. This valuable dog needed someone who connected with her when her ‘Mom’ was away, and Jill did just that. Jill saw the magic and knew of the reading miracles that Keenan often spoke about, and the seeds were sown. Raush and three other teachers, Lauren Moll, Martha Ngabo, and Amy Houwers brainstormed together to see how to capture some of this magic for their students.
With the challenges of Covid impacting everyone and everything, it also affected the students and carried over into their mental health and wellbeing. Rausch and her colleagues saw the potential for a new way of reaching their students. They approached Keenan with an idea: how about a virtual dog reading session? This would be a group of students paired together instead of the usual one-on-one format, but it was worth a try. It began with two students at a time, reading to Piper, and blossomed.
The first year, a total of eight students read each week to Piper. They chose their favorite book or Keenan chose a book. They read to each other. To make it more challenging, they prepared a pretend presentation to the school principal about the benefits of allowing a Reading Education Dog in the classroom. They created a contest and competed amongst themselves by writing a poem or story or creating a T-shirt design involving a Therapy Dog. The items were submitted to the teacher and then mailed to Keenan. A video was made showcasing each entry that was placed on the floor with a treat on it. Piper chose the ‘winners’ by taking a treat from each of the entries. The project was a wonderful success, so this team is now engaging in another semester with new students and two students from last year reading to Piper. Even though some might be a bit older, they are eager to spend time with Piper every week. They have chosen a book and they all take turns reading to Piper, talking about what they have read, relating their experiences or just discussing dog related things. They are reading, they are engaging, and they are having fun! There are no barriers: no distance, Covid or turmoil. All that matters is that this is special, and they have all found their own ‘special’ in this unique program. After all, the definition of ‘special’ is better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual. This is, indeed, Special.
Editor’s note: WHS teacher Lauren Moll told the Banner, “Alison donated her time to us. This is the second year we have done the program and she has been so wonderful!”