It's not uncommon to find kids reading to their teachers, their classmates or even their parents. But it is quite unusual to see a second-grader reading a story to a standard poodle that, in turn, seems to listen attentively.
The scene takes place at the Arroyos del Norte Elementary School. The poodle is Troy, the canine-half of a Pet Partners registered team. The human half is Annette Rubin, a retired educator. This is the newest Pet Partners team to join Goldstar Animals Helping People, Inc, a nonprofit corporation established in 2003.
“We all work in teams,” said Sandy Miller, Goldstar founder and president. “Teams are formed by Pet Partners-registered animals and their owners. They visit nursing homes, schools, hospices and other places that need our services.”
Miller and Goldstar co-founder Mary-George “Bunny” Eggborn, have extensive experience dealing with animals. They own four horses, two mini-horses, two sheep, two goats, a dog, and three cats. Mikie, a 10-year-old golden retriever and Princess, a 16-year-old mini horse, are registered therapy animals.
“Both are mature and well-behaved,” Miller said. “Princess knows when to eliminate and when not to do it, and I didn’t train her for that. She figured it out by herself.”
Mikie is also part of the reading program at Arroyos del Norte Elementary School.
“Children feel comfortable reading aloud to dogs,” Miller said. “They are not afraid of making mistakes or being criticized. And in the process, they fall in love with reading and animals at the same time.”
Miller encourages students to read to their own pets as well. She also teaches them how to take care of their animals, especially in the winter.
Miller, Mikie and Princess are also regular visitors at the Taos Living Center.
“They can brighten people’s lives by just staying in a room with them,” she said. “When we visit the center everybody has fun—the residents, who often start talking about the animals they used to have, and the staff, since they can notice an immediate improvement in the behavior and even the health of the patients. It’s like a party for them all.”
It has been medically proved that being in contact with a therapy animal may help the patient’s recovery process. Their presence makes people feel more relaxed and can even lower their blood pressure.
“We harness the power of healing that most animals possess,” said Miller.
Yes, you can pet them
There is a difference between service and therapy animals, Miller explained.
“A service animal is trained to assist a person with a disability, like guide dogs that work with visually impaired people,” she said. “They are not supposed to be petted when they are with their owners because they are at work.”
A therapy animal, on the other hand, is trained to provide comfort to many people. Strangers are allowed, and encouraged, to make physical contact with it.
Dogs make great therapy animals, but they are not the only ones. Cats, horses (of any size), rabbits and even guinea pigs are also suitable for the job if they have a good disposition.
“Most animals can be trained,” Miller said.
Goldstar is associated with Pet Partners, a national organization that allows people to register their pets as therapy animals.
“Membership includes liability insurance,” Miller said. “This is really important for anybody who takes a therapy animal to schools, nursing homes or other places.”
Miller’s goal is to register more Pet Partners teams to serve the Taos community.
“We want to expand our services in Taos but we also need more teams,” she said. “If you think that you and your pet are suitable to become a therapy team, please call us.”
During an informal interview, Miller can give interested people a general idea about the work and determine if their pet is likely to be good at it.
The therapy animal should also pass a health screening test administered by a veterinarian.
Besides Annette Rubin and Troy, who live in Taos, there are also two part-time Pet Partners teams that come from Texas and spend the summer here. One is formed by Diane Hughes and her two dogs, Jett and Katie.
“Jett is really special — he can solve arithmetic problems,” Miller said.
Hughes is the official Pet Partners evaluator for the Northern New Mexico area. She administers the test so people can register in the program and offers training workshops at her home in Red River.
The other team is made up by Susan and Rollie Voise and their dog Schatzie. They are frequent visitors at the Taos Living Center.
“Another beloved Goldstar member is Nancy Tetembaum, who used to visit Ranchos de Taos Elementary School with her dog Izzy,” said Miller. “When Izzy passed away, she continued helping with the reading program and is still doing it.”
Miller and fellow trainer Claire Foote will offer a series of training classes throughout the summer.
The first one will take place June 28 at 10:30 a.m. at the Taos Public Library.
“The classes are not just for people who have, or want to have, therapy animals,” she said.
“We will show owners how to best communicate with their animal and how to recognize when it is stressed.”
“We want to avoid biting and jumping up and to encourage good manners in dogs,” said Eggborn. “Our goal is to have good canine citizens.”