Today’s Feature, April 23-24, 2007: Karma Dogs

January 18, 2008 at 6:09 pm (Today's Feature)

When PensEyeView first heard about Karma Dogs, the conversation went a little like this. “This organization is amazing! They use dogs to teach kids how to read.”…Okay, I thought, I’ll bite (no pun intended), “So let me guess, cats teach math and birds teach science?” But in all honesty I was hooked from the start. Never mind the concept of using dogs to teach children how to learn and be comfortable reading to others, but the fact that an organization was using rescued dogs to do it. Karma Dogs unites two favorite concepts for children; dogs and children’s books. PensEyeView has a soft spot for dogs, all of us have dogs and all of us spoil them like crazy (present company a little more than others). I have a dog and he means the world to me. I also love reading, more so I love children’s books. It’s no secret the earlier you get children involved in reading the more successful in school and in life they will be. Karma Dogs is making sure that belief continues. I am beyond impressed with what Karma Dogs is doing and plans to do. Its success so far is not only admirable it is inspiring. Karma Dogs is reshaping the face of literacy in America (hopefully beyond) one dog at a time. Every parent wants the best for their children, especially when it comes to education. If there was a magic wand to make a child love to learn, I think every parent would use it. Well, unfortunately there isn’t…but there is a four-legged animal, with a wet nose, wagging tail and great taste in books, here to help. Read their XXQs, to find out how Karma Dogs does it.

XXQs: Karma Dogs

PensEyeView.com (PEV): Tell us what exactly Karma Dogs is and when did Karma Dogs begin?

Karma Dogs (KD): Karma Dogs is a 501 C(3) non-profit organization. We take dogs that have been rescued and rehabilitate them into therapy dogs. Our programs are free and we are supported through donations made by generous people in our community. Our volunteers donate a lot of their spare time to participate in our programs and are the reason our programs are successful. We have two main areas of focus: our HEARTS literacy program, and our work with the developmentally disabled. Karma Dogs started in the fall of ’06 after my husband and I adopted a blind puppy from Pet Rescue of Maryland. The puppy, Ernie, was only about 6 weeks old and was finding his way around the house. Our other two dogs, Dirk and Elliott, are also rescues from Pet Rescue of Maryland. It was obvious that they understood that Ernie was different, and that he needed a little help. Dirk kept an especially watchful eye over Ernie. At one point, Ernie almost fell off of the bed. As he got close to the edge, Dirk took Ernie’s head in his mouth, gently pushed him back to safety, and then barked for me to pay attention. Dirk would also make sure that Ernie could walk up the stairs, as Ernie sometimes got scared halfway up. Dirk would comfort him so that Ernie would keep going instead of crying for someone to pick him up. I saw this maternal side emerge from Dirk and Elliott, and I saw it out of the house too. When we would meet other dogs to play, Dirk and Elliott watched Ernie intently. If the play got too rough, they would make the other dog stop, with a stern bark and a body block, and then see that Ernie was okay. They seemed really happy in a way they weren’t before we got Ernie. We started to think they might be great with others who needed help, and started looking for a way to get them both involved in canine therapy. My childhood friend, Bridget Trafton, also looking for a way to get her rescued shepard mix involved in working with autistic children. We wanted to focus more on the rehabilitative/motivational aspects of animal therapy, and Karma Dogs was born out of those initial conversations. The reading program in another form was started years ago in Utah and has caught on in many states, operating as independent organizations under different names. HEARTS, or Help Encourage All Readers To Succeed, is our version.

PEV: What is it about a dog that makes them such good companions for children?

KD: I think dogs are great companions for almost anyone. They can be great with kids because they are always attentive listeners, comforters and playmates. Dogs never judge you and love you even when you are in a bad mood. They love you unconditionally, and who doesn’t want that? But not all kids are great with dogs, and young children and puppies can be a tricky mix. It is important that getting a dog for a child happens at the right age and when the family is ready to expand. Often, getting a dog is like getting another child and a lot of people are not ready for that. Even I am surprised at how much work a puppy can be, and I work with them all of the time with Pet Rescue of Maryland.

PEV: What does it take to become a Karma Dog?

KD: Karma Dogs are special dogs with excellent temperaments. They are unflappable, and don’t mind loud noises, sudden moves, and excessive or rough handling. People love to hug dogs, but not all dogs always like to be hugged. You have to make sure that your dog is a true “people dog” and that they are obedient. Our dogs have all passed temperament and obedience tests with our professional trainer. These tests, a combination of the Canine Good Citizen Test and the Therapy Dogs International temperament test, are really important as people can be leery of working with dogs in places like libraries and hospitals. In fact, two of the dogs that inspired Karma Dogs could not pass the tests we created for them. This was really upsetting, but you can’t force a dog to be something for which he or she isn’t suited. It is more important for everyone to have a rewarding experience than to take a chance on a dog who is not right for this kind of work.

PEV: Is there a certain breed of dog that works best with the children?

KD: Not at all. It is more important that the dog be a “people dog”. Different kids love different dogs of all sizes and appearances. In our HEARTS program, each child tends to pick one dog and stick with them, returning to the same dogs for more reading. Some kids love Vito the pug’s silly face. Others love Tasha’s laid-back personality. Dirk is a snugly, smart, goofball, and that appeals to other kids. I would love to have some larger dogs, especially breeds with misunderstood reputations, in the Karma family. I have learned a lot from doing rescue work, like the fact that no dog starts out screwed up or violent. People make them that way. Pit bulls don’t really have locking jaws and Rottweilers are not guard dogs who snarl all day. These dogs often have bad reputations, but they are some of the most affectionate dogs around. They are really strong dogs and that can get them into trouble if they are not well trained and treated kindly. I am always so happy to see a good example of a pit bull or rottie in the spotlight. You only hear the negative things about these breeds and they are such wonderful dogs. Aside from therapy work, we are passionate about teaching people about dogs- especially how to properly care for them. Nine out of ten times if the dog is behaving poorly, it is because of the owner, not the dog.

PEV: Anyone who has a dog knows that every dog has a unique personality. Do you find that certain kids tend to be attracted to certain kinds of dogs?

KD: I think the kids are attracted to dogs that like them. If a dog shows interest in a child, the child will usually show interest in them. Some kids do like a smaller or larger dog. It depends on what they are used to at home or at friends’ houses. Some kids are afraid of the larger dogs, but only until they get to know them. A gentle lick on the nose goes a long way to alleviate any fears.

PEV: What was it like the first time Karma Dogs showed up at the library to work with children?

KD: We were so excited to start working. We had been training the dogs for about six months, and for the last month specifically on how to “read”. The dogs had to learn to sit still, while paying some kind of attention in the direction of the book. Some dogs can point to a page with their nose or paw, which helps sell the idea. The library was really excited to have us there and wants the program to succeed as much as we do. We were worried the dogs would not pay attention or that the kids would not really feel any different reading to dogs. I think the dogs like it as much as the kids, and most of the time the dogs are the stars. We humans just hold the leash and stamp the bookmark. The kids love it and even call the library if they are running late so the dogs don’t think they forgot about their reading session.

PEV: Does it take a while for the children to warm up to the dogs? Or is it pretty natural?

KD: So far, every child has bonded to a dog quickly. Most kids pick one dog and stay with that dog, as if they were partners. So far, there have been no complaints about wanting a different dog. The kids actually select the dog they like best when they sign up. They really look forward to seeing them each week.

PEV: What has been the best part about Karma Dogs, so far?

KD: For me, the best part was discovering that one child who will not read at home or at school LOVES to read to Dirk . I had no idea he disliked reading so much and only learned this when I told their mother how well they were doing and what an improvement there had been since we started. I had no idea that the child actually hated reading. He seems to really like it now and picks out books that he thinks the dog will like. I secretly suspect he reads them first at home so he can impress the dog on Saturdays. That is what the program is all about and it is great to see it start working so quickly.

PEV: Karma Dogs is a great avenue for educating children, not only on literacy but also on animal appreciation. How important is it for children to be comfortable with animals…especially dogs?

KD: I think it is incredibly important for children to have a respect for all animals. It kills me to hear stories of dogs being locked in a basement all of the time, being ignored or even worse. I think if everyone started thinking of an animal as something with feelings, it would make a big difference. I am not saying that a dog gets upset if you call them fat, but they do know when they have done something wrong and they certainly feel pain. I don’t think that many people realize how closely intertwined a dog is with its owner. When they are mistreated or ignored, it is like destroying something that only wants to love you, which is heartbreaking. I think people would be shocked if they knew how often dogs and cats are abused. Working in rescue is really difficult. It opens your eyes to some things that is much easier to ignore. I think one of the most important things Karma Dogs can do is teach kids about animals and how they relate to them. Hopefully a positive experience like what kids are getting from Karma Dogs will help them be better, more respectful pet owners in the future.

PEV: Obviously every dog is different but at what age do think is a good time to start children interacting with dogs?

KD: I think some exposure to dogs or cats at a very early age is great. The one thing families need to be careful about is how the kids and dogs relate to each other. Dogs can rough-house and jump and accidentally hurt a small child- usually by knocking them down. This can be really scary for the child and most likely ends with the dog being in trouble. Kids can also poke dogs or pull tails or do things that dogs don’t like or understand. Again, the dog gets in trouble, which is good for no one. Some families understand how to build this relationship between pets and kids at a very young age and some should reconsider and wait until their children are older. It is important to consider what is actually realistic for their family before making the leap into getting a family pet that can live up to 20 years. I think all exposure to animals at a young age should be as positive as possible. Not being able to enjoy everything that comes along with owning a pet makes me sad.

PEV: All the Karma Dogs are rescued dogs that have been given a better life. There seems to be a connection with that and kids getting a better life through education.

KD: All of our dogs have been rescued and are paying it forward. I hate that expression, probably because of the bad movie, but it does explain the concept behind Karma Dogs. Our dogs came from less than perfect environments, persevered, and came out the other side as fortunate, healthy animals who are ready to help others. For example, Dirk was left behind in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The day we adopted him, the rescue told us they were so glad it was us because he was “such a special case” and needed “way more work than most would be willing to put into a dog”. We only saw that side of him for a few days, and he soon blossomed into the awesome dog we now have. Tasha came from a medical testing facility. She has no reason to like people. But she loves them. With the generosity and kindness of the family that adopted her, she has overcome her circumstances to go on to help others. We hope that everyone who works with a Karma Dog benefits and can use that at some point to help someone else. Maybe HEARTS will help them improve at school, and they’ll have more opportunities open up for them. Or perhaps they’ll learn that if a blind dog can learn to outrun other dogs and get a stick, a person with a disability can earn to overcome some of the obstacles that might be holding them back.

PEV: What are some of the favorite books the kids enjoy reading with the dogs?

KD: The kids seem to love reading books about animals. I am sure it helps that on our website, http://www.karmadogs.org, it mentions the type of books each dog likes. Dirk and I have listened to the book, “Hard Working Puppies” and some Scooby-Doo stuff over and over. One little girl sought out books about princesses after reading Tasha’s bio on the net. It was really sweet. Just when I think things are dorky or over the top, some kid will really identify with it. They just aren’t jaded like the rest of us.

PEV: In your opinion, who is the best children’s book author today?

KD: Having not read a bunch of contemporary kids’ books before this, I will say I personally enjoy the Walter The Farting Dog series by William Kotzwinkle and Glenn Murray. I also really like the “Olivia” books by Ian Falconer. However, I would personally really like to know what Ramona the Pest (Beverly Cleary) is up to these days. I loved those books as a kid. I did read a newer book by my favorite childhood author, Judy Blume, a few years ago to see what Super Fudge was doing. I would also like to get re-acquainted with Encyclopedia Brown. I hope some kids will discover these books and read them to the dogs. I always had my nose buried in a book and loved these when I was younger. I hope they still hold up today.

PEV: Have any of the dogs ever wandered off or got distracted before the session was over?

KD: One dog allegedly snores sometimes, but I have never personally witnessed this. Dirk is almost always really interested in what is going on. Sometimes he likes to touch noses with a kid when they are trying to read. He seems to do this when everyone needs a short break and it makes the kids laugh, because it is hard to read with a wet nose in your face. Vito is a prince and laps up the attention.

PEV: What is your opinion about many schools cutting budgets for art and creative programs?

KD: I think having a creative outlet in school is one of the most important things a kid can have. I know I built whole worlds in my imagination as a child, and was encouraged to do this through creative writing assignments. Other friends of mine flourished in art class or in band. I can’t imagine going to school and just learning from textbooks. For me, the creative stuff was always the best part of school. I think being creative and being allowed to express that is one of the things that has allowed me to move forward with ideas that seem silly or far-flung. Without the exposure to creative opportunities, I feel a lot of those ideas could be lost.

PEV: Has there ever been situations where kids will argue over getting a certain dog versus another?

KD: We have not had that problem, but we have had a child that was really upset at the thought of not getting to pick out a book from one dog’s particular book collection to keep as a reward for completing 4 weeks of attendance. The books have been donated by Baltimore Reads, but the kids really believe they are the dog’s personal possessions. Once again, just when I think the kids won’t believe it and think we are adults lying to them, they love it and totally buy into it.

PEV: All of the PensEyeView.com team members have dogs and love to spoil them. What is the best way to spoil your dog?

KD: The best way to spoil your dog is to give them what they love most; Attention from you, lots of walks or romps in smelly things and some good chew toys. Dogs don’t care about fancy clothes (most of them, anyway) or rhinestone collars. They want a warm bed, love from you and good exercise. And a Kong toy filled with peanut butter or something else yummy every now or then.

PEV: In order to keep your dog healthy and happy, how much exercise should a dog have a day?

KD: I am so glad you asked this question! Most problems people have with their dogs can be corrected with exercise. You know how you can get squirrelly if you can’t do anything but lay in bed all day? At first, it sounds great. But eventually you start getting bored and get into trouble. It is the same with dogs. They depend on exercise to get their ya-ya’s out. Without it, they are headed for trouble. As far as how much they need, it really depends on the kind of dog you have. A border collie needs loads of exercise and their own job to be happy. A basset hound needs to chase a ball for ten minutes. A daily walk is great for many dogs. Just don’t start out jogging with them before they work up to it. Just like people, they need to build up their strength and endurance before they start running marathons.

PEV: How has Karma Dogs helped raise animal awareness?

KD: I hope at the very least, the kids and their parents see that dogs are more than just a furry thing that begs for food at the dinner table (not permitted at my house, by the way!). I hope they see them as animals that are likely to have more to give you then you have to give them. I hope kids realize that their family pet can be their best friend. I hope they realize they deserve some level of respect and fair treatment. I think by making a friend in a Karma Dog, they will identify with them in a whole new positive way.

PEV: What is next for Karma Dogs?

KD: Karma Dogs will be expanding our HEARTS program to another library branch when this program ends. We are hoping to do more work with developmentally challenged kids and adults to build social, physical and communication skills. Ideally, I would love to be able to contribute to the research that is making animal therapy a more respected field. I really believe that animals can make a tremendous difference in the lives of the people they touch. Doing actual scientific research helps to prove the benefits of canine therapy and will make it a more respected field, less of a novelty. Hopefully, as our programs catch on, more people will be interested in getting involved with their rescued dogs. It is a big time and training commitment, but it is worth the effort. To see a child’s face light up when a dog is paying attention to them reading to them is magical. To read more about Karma Dogs, check out http://www.karmadogs.org

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