Humans aren’t the only ones seeing their jobs change as a result of the pandemic.
When COVID-19 closed schools last spring, teams of therapy dogs involved in a volunteer-run literacy program were also forced to adapt.
Canines with the Reading with Rover program that were accustomed to snuggling up with children who read aloud in libraries and schools have found themselves looking at a computer screen instead.
Reading with Rover has offered online sessions for kids looking to practice their reading skills. Although interactions take place over webcams these days, nothing else about the nonprofit’s program has changed. The children still get one-on-one time with a dog that, without judgment, listens to them read aloud.
Therapy dogs may have been befuddled at first by the turn of events, but their handlers said they have dealt with the transition seamlessly.
Greenbank resident LouAnn Hepp and her 7-year-old parti poodle, Ruby, have been participating in Reading with Rover for the past several years.
The pair make up one of four Whidbey teams who jumped on board with the organization’s virtual events.
Hepp said she and Ruby have missed going to schools, where Ruby was treated like “a queen.”
“It was hard for Ruby in the beginning because I would put her vest on and she would go to the door like, ‘Okay, let’s go to school,’” Hepp said.
The two now have a routine that involves the couch and a laptop, through which Ruby is able to see the kids reading to her.
“Reading to a dog really helps reluctant readers get going,” Hepp said.
Heather Rush, a Snohomish resident who leads a Reading with Rover team with her beagle, Thea, agreed.
Rush said kids are computer-savvy by this point and her dog has no trouble snuggling up to the screen with some treats.
“They’re comfortable, they’re showing pictures to the dogs through the screen,” she said of the kids.
Hepp acknowledged that a lot of kids could be feeling “Zoom burnout” from increased time spent in front of the computer.
“But this is different,” she said. “It’s reading to a dog.”
Some of the virtual events are in partnership with the Sno-Isle Libraries, and others are hosted independently by Reading with Rover. Sign-ups are available at readingwithrover.org/eventcalendar.
One of the advantages of going entirely virtual has been a reduction in travel times. Before, some teams from the mainland had to travel to South Whidbey Elementary School and other places on Whidbey. Now, teams and kids from all around Puget Sound are interacting.
“A team from Everett can visit with Federal Way and both are in their homes and they don’t have to figure out how to fit traffic into their schedules,” Rush explained.
According to Leslie Williams, a team lead, facility coordinator and evaluator for Reading with Rover, the organization went from around 100 teams attending in-person events to about 35 teams doing virtual ones.
However, there has been an increased interest in teams wanting to try out the virtual events, and the organization has a team as far away as Canada that is participating in the online program.
“It’s actually a really good way to introduce dogs and handlers to Reading with Rover, because they don’t have to worry about the other people in the room,” Williams said.
She added that she believes that, even after the pandemic, there is a place for virtual reading events.
“There are a lot of children and parents who are either afraid of dogs or allergic to dogs,” she said.
Hepp is hoping the virtual events will generate an island-wide interest in reading.
“Literacy is real important to me,” she said. “I really want to see kids learn to read, as comfortably as possible.”
And for those who are interested in getting their dog to participate in the program as part of one of the teams, there are options available.
The canines must complete six hours of training, an evaluation and must be supervised for 12 hours by a mentor while volunteering with the program.
Hepp and her co-instructor, Diana Trupiano, will be leading a series of in-person classes this spring through the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District.
A free “therapy team mini evaluation” will take place first, to assess a team’s readiness, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 27 at the M-Bar-C Ranch, 5264 Shore Meadow Road, in Freeland. This session will help establish if a dog and its owner are a good fit for the program.
Therapy team prep classes are 6-9 p.m. Thursdays, April 8-22, at the same location. The cost is $150 per dog-handler team.
To register, visit swparks.org/event/reading-rover-therapy-dogs.
Usually, dogs are evaluated every two years to continue with Reading with Rover. If they fail the final test, dogs can be tested again in two weeks.
Rush has opted to lead online classes for the training segment, which currently allow teams to get their “virtual badge” and participate in the virtual events.
Since dogs can’t be tested in person right now and do in-person events, she thought this seemed like a good alternative.