Heidi’s Challenge

Happy Tails Books encourage people to find unique ways to integrate their pets into their lives and communities. Here’s Valerie Keener’s story about how she and her Boxer, Heidi, have come up with an innovative system of helping children to improve their reading skills:

When my eldest daughter had our grandson at only 28 weeks gestation, we anticipated developmental problems. He was in the NICU for 13 weeks and came home on heart monitors, etc. 

Eight months after my grandson’s birth, I looked to adopt a Boxer puppy because I felt that my grandson would benefit from the stimulation, and perhaps he and the dog would bond. We brought our grandson to meet Heidi, a 13-week-old pup from a bad situation. She was shy, but she went running right up to my grandson and stayed by his side. We took that as a sign and brought her home.

Luckily, it turned out that my grandson had no deficits. None! He is our miracle boy in so many ways. Although he didn’t need Heidi as much as we thought he might, perhaps other people did. Heidi had the perfect disposition for a therapy dog, so I decided to train her. After she finished beginning though advanced classes at PetSmart and achieved her CGC (Canine Good Citizen award), we joined an organization called Thera-Pits in the Cleveland area, and Heidi went on to earn her Therapy Dogs International certification.

With the blessing of Chris Hughes, the founder of Thera-Pits, we started an Akron branch of the organization. With that, we began working on reading skills in local schools with both special needs and mainstream kids. We also worked with the local library in their kids reading to the dogs program. 

Our work with the children had many ideas rolling around in my head. I researched dogs and reading programs and discovered that university studies proved that kids’ skills and confidence grew significantly after reading to a dog just once a week. I thought, “What if they were able to do this every day?”

Of course, Heidi can’t work with the kids every day, so what could we do? I founded Thera-Paws, a new organization, and from that came “Heidi’s Challenge.” Through this, we challenge kids to read to their family cat/dog/hamster/whatever (if they don’t have a pet, a stuffed animal will do). They are to do so for a specific amount of time, during which they are to skip over words they can’t read or pronounce. After the designated time is up, they are to ask someone for help with the difficult words.

We challenge them to do this every day for an entire month, and at the end, we give them an award from Heidi. The first month earns them a bookmark with Heidi’s photo on it. It says, “I completed Heidi’s Challenge.” Each month they complete earns them a different award. 

Last year was our first, and the program was very well received. We have been asked to do it again this year. We are extremely pleased with the program’s success, and especially with the fact that we are not only helping children to read but we are also helping children to learn about pet-related issues. In launching the challenge, I did a 20-minute assembly with the entire school and spoke about proper dog manners, how to handle a strange dog approaching in a park, and the “real” pit bull and canine discrimination and BSL (breed-specific legislation). 

I have MS and I do not do well in the winter months. Historically, I do not go out in the winter; basically, I just hibernate. During this past winter and with the commitments I had made with Heidi, I was forced to go out. As a result, I had the best winter I have had in many years, both physically and mentally!  At this point in time, Heidi and I are the only Thera-Paws “team,” but another team is joining me this year. Their timing is great because the more known we are, the more we are invited to visit schools. I really believe in the program and the impact it has on kids. This year, we are working with at least three classes of autistic children. We look forward to the challenges. 

If you’d like to follow Valerie and Heidi’s successes, please visit their website and their Facebook page.