written by cindy kahler thomas | photos by jennifer gracin photography
Chiyoko Eto, a citizen of Tokyo, was recently on a fact finding mission in Wichita Falls that touched her heart. She was shadowing Michelle Nester, to see firsthand how children reading to therapy dogs can change their lives and change the lives of the dog’s owners. Chiyoko heard about this program through a mutual friend of Michelle’s, Fujiko Takai. Fujiko shared some of the heartwarming stories that she had heard from Michelle with Chiyoko, which piqued Chiyoko’s interest. The program involves children reading books to dogs. This helps those that struggle with reading to hone that skill. It also helps children with other problems in school.
Chiyoko doesn’t speak English, and an interpreter Suguru Hiraide was kind enough to step in and help her share her story. Suguru is an art professor at Midwestern State University. Chiyoko has two dogs, toy poodles named Mine and Chahika, and is very interested in helping others and wanted something that she can continue for a long period of time. Chiyoko has an interest in working with children.
“In Japan, pet stores are the most common places to buy pets, and it has become a big industry. At the same time they have pressure to sell the dogs, and dogs that don’t sell, the older dogs, they have no place to go and in some cases the pet stores put them to sleep, and this is something I could not stand,” Chiyoko said. Shelters are not common in Japan yet, but they do have some that keep most dogs, but after some time they put them to sleep. Chiyoko wants to raise awareness about these animals. She had not heard of a reading to dog program like this in Japan and thinks that not many other people in Japan are familiar with it either. She thinks that this will be the first time this is introduced in her country.
“Many people there have dogs and cats; however, there are also many dogs and cats that are abandoned and have lost their owners or have been ignored by their owners and lost their homes. I think that this program will help both the abandoned dogs, and people who are interested in helping others,” she added, “I want to give back by starting a program like this in Japan. There are some therapy dogs, but it is not common,” and she wants to spread knowledge about how useful those abandoned dogs can be to the community by helping children.
Many of Michelle’s dogs are also adopted and the dogs are friendly and nice. They were very welcoming to Chiyoko. She feels like Michelle rescuing those dogs also saved her. “I received my inspiration, courage and kindness from those dogs. I know the history of the dogs, that they lost their home or their owners for whatever reason, and they are now adopted by Michelle,” Chiyoko said. She feels the dogs are positive friends to herself and others. Chiyoko stayed with Michelle during her weeklong visit and saw the kindness and caring Michelle has for others. It was inspirational to Chiyoko.
“I thought that therapy dogs needed special training until I came here, but that was not the case. The most important thing is to give them a lot of love and create a wonderful environment for them, then they will love people and grow into loving dogs. Michelle tries to never let the dogs get angry. They will naturally learn from the conversation and play with love. Michelle works with them from early morning until they go to bed. I think it’s much harder than giving a snack and cheating. I sincerely respect Michelle,” Chiyoko added.
“I thought that therapy dogs needed special training until I came here, but that was not the case. The most important thing is to give them a lot of love and create a wonderful environment for them, then they will love people and grow into loving dogs.” ~ Chiyoko Eto
When she takes this experience back home, she plans on learning about dogs and therapy in Japan. She would like to see the similarities and differences and contrasts between the therapy system here and in Japan. Chiyoko has no children and doesn’t have any connection to schools currently, but she plans to “brainstorm and research” the issue. She is expecting challenges when she gets home and tries to solve the issues that this endeavor entails.
Her mentor, Michelle, has been using her dogs for therapy since 1998. She started in assisted living homes, but once she found out about the reading program for children, she was hooked. She has five dogs that she takes to schools and to the Wichita Falls Public Library. She is a member of the Wichita Falls Obedience Club who “has a large number of therapy dogs.” The library has a Tales for Tails reading program in the summer and she said that it isn’t a surprise to have 10 dogs lying all around the library on Thursdays. The program allows children to read out loud with no pressure since they are reading to the dogs.
“Her dogs have become quite popular and kids will wait in line to get to read to her dogs. They will overlook the other dogs sometimes in order to wait for her dogs. She is really good with the children too. She is an amazing part of the program,” said Angela Hill, Assistant Administrator for the library.
“When I first started the program, I needed to put Mariposa [one of the dogs] down and hope she looked at the book. I don’t say a word to these dogs. Mariposa comes in and scooches up to the book and puts her paws on it and looks back and forth from the child to the book,” Michelle said. “There are times when they help with the reading, and there are times they just sense what to do. Mariposa has always been quiet and never a kisser. You never get a kiss out of her,” she stressed, “I worked with this one little girl in the second-grade for several months. The little girl came in crying one day and said that she didn’t want to read, so, I asked her what she wanted to do. She said, ‘I just want to lay on the floor and have Mariposa kiss me.’ I can teach obedience—sit-stay those kinds of things, but I can’t teach kisses. Mariposa hopped off my lap, went over to the little girl and started kissing her all over her face! She kissed that little girl so much, and finally I said, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know she would kiss that much. If you want, I will ask her to stop,’ and the girl said, ‘No, no, just let her kiss me.’”
The program makes huge differences in the lives it touches-both the humans and the dogs.
“I want to give back by starting a program like this in Japan. There are some therapy dogs, but it is not common,” and she wants to spread knowledge about how useful those abandoned dogs can be to the community by helping children.” ~ Chiyoko Eto
One of the stories that Chiyoko found motivation in was about a third-grade boy that had never spoken. Michelle worked with him and was told that the boy would not be passed to the next grade if he didn’t speak. When he tried to talk, he would blow up his cheeks like a balloon, which caused the dogs to backup instead of coming to him. Michelle encouraged him to call out to the dogs. She asked if he wanted to talk. He had a condition called selective mute. She asked if he could think the words and he nodded so she assured him that he would be able to say them. She made a book with stickers that had different things that dogs would do like bark and fetch. “He was trying to say the word ‘fetch,’, and he was blowing up his cheeks and fetch came out. As soon as he said that, he looked at me and said, ‘Would you like for me to read to you?’ He goes over and picks out a fifth grade book and started reading to me. He was a wonderful smart child that is one of the brightest children I have ever seen.” He then wanted to write a note to his teacher on the board that said, ‘I talked!’, He was talking, and tears were coming down my face,” she said passionately. When he went to read to the principal, which was required, he froze up. “The principal very gently but quite honestly told him that he could not be passed if he couldn’t read to him. So I said, ‘Would you like to hold Mariposa,’ and he seemed to hold on to her, and then he read perfectly and went on to become an honor student, and a boy scout with every honor you can just about get,” she stressed. The program makes huge differences in the lives it touches—both the for the humans and the dogs. “I told my husband that I could quit just about anything, but I can’t quit my reading program,” she said with a smile. Now her experiences are coloring Chiyoko’s world, and the process of giving will go on. It is a small world after all. †