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Tori, let me tell you a story

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Carlson Fangman reads to Tori, a Reading Education Assistance Dog, at Red Cottage Montessori. Tori has retired, so the region is looking for another R.E.A.D.-certified canine. Photo by Kai Rodgers2 / 2

After training dogs through Helping Paws Minnesota, Jane Ward found 8-week-old Tori, a golden retriever. She trained him to be a service dog for a person with physical disabilities who needed help to be independent. Now, over 10 years later, Ward and Tori still prove to be an inseparable team.

At 3 years old, Tori's skin allergies proved to be extensive and would cost too much for him to be placed as a Helping Paws service dog, even though it's what he was trained to do. Knowing that Tori had a great gift as a service dog, Ward looked for other opportunities for him to make an impact in people's lives. About six years ago, Ward found R.E.A.D — Reading Education Assistance Dogs — and the program was a natural fit.

R.E.A.D. provides a non-threatening, safe, fun opportunity for children to improve their reading and communication skills. Children read to a trained dog, who is accompanied by its handler. All of the animals in the program are registered therapy dogs that hold insurance.

Tori was trained as a therapy dog and took the therapy dog test to qualify as a R.E.A.D dog. Therapy dogs have to prove they can handle any and all situations that may cause stress and unwanted behavior by the average, untrained dog. During training, dogs face obstacles that present themselves most often in hospitals. Walkers hitting the floor, people yelling and more are often startling for the average dog, but are situations that therapy dogs learn to tolerate.

To become R.E.A.D. certified, both the dog and its handler take part in training with R.E.A.D. Minnesota. Ward learned how to be an effective advocate for Tori during his one-on-one time with children. Ward said she understood her role was not to be another teacher, but to help children become comfortable and confident with the process of reading. This approach enabled children to further their reading skills in the classroom.

Ward answered questions asked by students and sometimes spoke for Tori. For example, if a child skipped a couple of pages, Ward may have said something along the lines of, "Tori didn't understand how that happened. Can you show him?" Ward explained that children have been known to put the book down in front of Tori and point out what was happening in the story.

"They really think the dog asks the questions. It's like I'm not even there, which is the whole purpose," she said.

Ward believes the R.E.A.D program truly works because children relax in the company of dogs. The dogs listen without criticizing or intimidating the reader, which opens the door for effective, joyful learning.

"I have a shirt that says 'Dogs are good listeners.' Dogs never correct you, they don't care how you pronounced it. They are just happy to be there with you," Ward said.

Ward and Tori started off at Jefferson School and later expanded their weekly visits to Red Cottage Montessori, Burnside Elementary and Kenyon-Wanamingo Elementary, with a few stops at the Red Wing Public Library. They listened to approximately 65 children read every week. It was a challenge for Ward to get into the public schools, but teachers and students expressed gratitude once they did.

One of the teachers Ward and Tori worked with at Jefferson moved to Kenyon and called to ask how far Tori would travel. The team of two worked primarily with summer school students and fifth-graders who weren't reading at their class level in Kenyon-Wanamingo. The fifth-graders read to Tori for just about a year.

"We saw them go from reading children's books to reading chapter books." Ward said.

Ward and Tori worked with one student who went through first grade refusing to read. He got to second grade and told his teacher he wanted to read to Tori. The teacher told him he had to be able to read something before he could go with the dog, so he worked hard to do just that. He came in to read to Tori, only knowing one or two words per page. By the end of the year, he was reading books with six lines on each page.

"I think without Tori, he might still be refusing to read. It's not because he couldn't, he was just refusing to read," Ward said.

Ward and Tori have a special tradition. If a child reads to Tori 10 times, they are gifted a book that Tori "paw-tographs." This is a symbol of the skills the children have gained and a memorable token of the time they have spent with Tori.

Tori has terminal cancer and has retired from R.E.A.D, but has left a loving paw-print on the hearts of many children. His calm, sweet-natured personality positively impacted the learning paths of numerous students.

Ward said she doesn't plan on adopting a new dog with the credentials necessary to become a R.E.A.D dog, but is hopeful others will have interest in getting their dog trained. She is ready and willing to provide information and advice on the best way to make that possible. She can be contacted at janeward.redwing@gmail.com.

The success stories that come with the work of Ward and Tori are countless. The legacy they will be remembered by many, but the work isn't finished. Teachers and students touched by Tori say the region needs a new R.E.A.D dog to take on what Tori will leave behind.

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