“A lot of them either steered very clear of the dog or weren’t quite sure how to ask to pet them,” she said.
Ross teaches at Hastings and Darwin Schools in the Louis Riel School Division.
She is also with D.R.E.A.M., Dog Rescue, Education & Advocacy Manitoba, a new organization that launched last weekend.
Now she’s combining the two in programs she plans to introduce to students at Hastings this fall.
‘Read with Rufus’ is modelled on a successful reading program in Chicago’s public school system. Ross is working with the librarian in her school to pick books about dogs or other pets that kids can read to dogs brought into the classroom. Educators say reading to a dog has been shown to boost reading skills dramatically.
Ross said her program will initially be aimed at students in grades one and two, especially those with high needs.
"A lot of them just don't like to read." Victoria Ross
“But a lot of them, we’re finding, are in that very patterned book (phase), kind of like, ‘See Spot run. Spot does this,’ just very fragmented. And a lot of them just don’t like to read.”
She said children with high needs are those diagnosed with autism, others who are undiagnosed, or those who are hyperactive.
She said these children have a lot of “sensory needs….so having an animal there they can touch and pet directs their hands to be doing one thing so their mind is freed up to be doing something else.”
Ross also wants to partner with the Winnipeg Humane Society which runs a program called ‘See Spot Read’ that pairs children struggling with reading with dogs at the shelter. Ross wants to bring the dog to the students though, giving the students ten or fifteen minutes one-on-one with the dog, once in every six day cycle.
"The kids know exactly, ‘this is how you act around the dog...’ So when the dog comes in for the reading program, we’re kind of set.”
“We’ll come in and speak to the whole class about proper pet ownership, about body language,” she said.
“If you see a dog on the street and it looks a certain way, what should you do? Should you approach that dog, or should you not? Hopefully, that’s going to help with dog bite prevention and teaching kids yes, we want to spay and neuter our dogs.”
Ross said the dogs will be therapy dogs from St. John’s Ambulance and they'll help kids learn to overcome bad habits and misconceptions.
“They just want to kind of grab at the dog…That can startle the dogs if you come at them too quickly or, if you come over their heads, some dogs get uncomfortable. The St. John’s Ambulance dogs all go through quite a rigorous test to become certified, so they’re pretty calm…. We want them to know, don’t just rush up to the dog, don’t startle them if they are chewing on something or eating. They might be really excited to meet the dog but sometimes you have to rein the excitement in just so they don’t get hurt.”
Ross said teaching children how to behave around dogs will probably come before the reading program.
“So they’d have that background knowledge so when the dog comes in, …the kids know exactly, ‘this is how you act around the dog, this is what you do, this is what you don’t do.’ So when the dog comes in for the reading program, we’re kind of set.”
"Sometimes people think, ‘Oh it’s just one dog. It’s not going to be that big of a deal.’ But it is a pretty big deal.”
Ross said the program addresses overpopulation from a number of angles, from public safety to animal welfare.
“There’s a lot of really great graphics you can show the kids that two dogs over time can create this many thousands of extra dogs,” she said.
“You want to show them …that spaying and neutering one dog can make a larger impact. Sometimes people think, ‘Oh it’s just one dog. It’s not going to be that big of a deal.’ But it is a pretty big deal.”
Ross said she’s working out the details of the two programs over the summer. In the fall, parents will get notices about the programs and ensure none of the children has allergies. She said even though she’s aiming for the younger grades, a teacher with grades three and four has already asked to be included.
She’s hoping with more volunteers with therapy dogs, the program will be able to expand.