Four-legged guests joined more than 30 students from Oklahoma Road Middle School in the media center Thursday afternoon as the Pets on Wheels therapy dogs visited the school for an afternoon of fuzzy fellowship.
Pets on Wheels is a nonprofit devoted to bringing therapy animals to schools, libraries, hospitals and other places where people can engage with them. Carolyn Cherry, media specialist at Oklahoma Road and a former Pets of Wheels dog owner, said the program is a wonderful way to help children come out of their shells in a friendly atmosphere. She said animals can often be a great de-stressor for students during tough times.
"Any time you can bring animals and students together, it's a happy thing," Cherry said. "It's good for them to be together and in an atmosphere where they're not being graded. Testing is coming up for some of them, and this is a way to relax before that happens."
The afternoon featured six pooches, ranging in size and breeds from a Chihuahua to a golden retriever.
Some students bounced from station to station, spending time with each of the dogs, while others picked their favorites and stayed with them, trading snuggles and receiving doggy kisses. Some gathered around to take selfies with the dogs to share with their friends later. After introductions, some students were invited to read to the dogs from several books strewn about the library, from a "Gross Joke" book to National Geographic descriptions of the animal kingdom.
Stephanie Izaguirre, a sixth-grade student, read Shel Silverstein's poetry to Penny the poodle at the event. She said Penny was her favorite of the dogs at the school.
"She lets you read to her without her jumping on you. She's calm," Stephanie said. "Once my sister and I came across this dog who jumped on me, and since then I've been afraid of dogs. This is nice, because I don't have a dog. I'm thinking of doing this with my cat."
Cherry said it's great to see students become more comfortable with the dogs throughout the program. She said reading aloud to the animals can help build their confidence.
"Students who read to pets improve their reading skills, because pets are nonjudgmental," Cherry said. "They'll listen to you; they won't criticize you, and you can just read on and on."
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Pets on Wheels volunteer Sandi Athey brought her Chihuahua, named Kokopelli, on Thursday, carrying him from place to place in a shoulder harness. Students gathered around Kokopelli and learned about some of the challenges of having a small dog, from making sure he's warm in the winter to how he deals with larger dogs.
Athey said she joined the organization two years ago, because she was interested in the mission and was looking for a way to volunteer in the community. Kokopelli then underwent tests and training to ensure his temperament was calm in the face of dozens of onlookers.
With Kokopelli's calm demeanor, Athey said he passed the tests easily and now travels the area visiting people of all ages. Athey said she lights up, though, when she has the opportunity to visit students with her dog.
"It's all about the smiles. Wherever we go, we get them, because obviously, he's adorable and attracts people," Athey said. "He's kind of a novelty, because he likes to be in the bag. He's so good with the kids, though. What's better than dogs and kids?"