When Josie Gavieres met a representative of WomenShelter recently, she didn’t waste a moment.
“I was attending First Fridays and saw their table,” Gavieres said. “And we had been wanting to be involved with a shelter or with kids who are affected by abuse, so I just asked her if she’d be interested.”
The idea was brought to Mary Ellen Mitchell, WomenShelter’s executive director, and before long, four therapy dogs had joined the youth group. The children, ranging in age from 7 years old to 13, took turns reading to the pups.
“We’re a lot about self-empowerment and trying to get our victims and youth to feel that sense of empowerment,” Mitchell explained. “Reading gets the kids to forget about their problems for a bit.”
It also builds self-esteem, she said — something all children, and especially children dealing with violence at home, need.
“One of the boys stutters very badly,” she said. “He will not read out loud and doesn’t even like to talk much, but he would read to the dog. The dogs don’t correct them; they’re not being judged.”
Gavieres, who started Beach Animals Reading with Kids (BARK) Therapy Group nine years ago, said she also was moved by watching the therapy dogs and their handlers interact with the children at WomenShelter.
“It was amazing,” the medical transcriptionist, who “always wished she could be a first grade teacher,” said.
One child asked whether the handler ever disciplined the dog by hitting him.
“The handler said, ‘Oh, I never hit the dog,’” Gavieres recalled. “And then the big dog rolled over on his back and the hander said, ‘See? When the dog shows you his underbelly, he’s saying I trust you, and I know you have a good heart.’ They needed to hear that.”
The event was so successful that the dogs will visit WomenShelter’s youth group once a month, Mitchell said.
BARK, which began when a seeing-eye dog Gavieres had been training finished just shy of making the cut, now has 165 dogs in service. The program is entirely volunteer run, and there is never a charge for visits, she said.
The nonprofit’s service area runs from the San Fernando Valley to southern Orange County, with a handful of teams in the San Francisco Bay Area. BARK is the official therapy dog group for Community Hospital Long Beach; they’ve also visited hospitals and nursing homes. And this year, they even visited California State University, Long Beach, during finals week, where hundreds of stressed-out students waited in line for a bit of dog cuddling time.
But the group’s main focus, Gavieres said, remains working with children. BARK volunteers are a mainstay at public libraries, and the pups visit about a dozen elementary schools within Long Beach Unified School District.
“We go to 60 elementary schools every week during the school year,” she said. “We work with struggling readers. And what we do is we tell them that they are training the dog so the dog can go to the library. Everybody wants to be the one to read with the dog…. They relax and open up and are much more willing to read the book — and even struggle through it a little bit — because they are helping the dog.”
In return, they get adoring looks from their listeners, who don’t mind if the child stumbles along the way.
“The dog just loves you no matter what,” she said.
For more information about BARK, or to find out how to certify your dog, visit barkdogs.org.
For more information about WomenShelter, visit womenshelterlb.org.
Jennifer Rice Epstein can be reached at [email protected]