The Dog Who Teaches Kids to Talk

Lisa Holding Boo

Therapy dog Boo with his trainer Lisa Edwards.

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Boo, a 12-year-old black Lab mix, isn’t very smart, but he’s helped disabled kids learn to read—and even to speak.

Before meeting Boo, Marc Oliviere, then 6, had never said a single word. If his mom April, said, “Good morning,” Marc would just stare. Meals were a guessing game as the Mahopac, NY mom held up various foods and waited for him to point to his choices. 

And when he came home from kindergarten with cuts on his back, April had to call the school to find out what happened. It turned out that another kid had bitten him during recess. But Marc wouldn’t tell her who did it, or if he was in pain.

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The Healing Power of an Animal

“We had no idea what was going through his little head,” April told me. “It was sad and frustrating not to know what he wanted or how he felt.” A therapist diagnosed him with selective mutism, a childhood anxiety disorder in which kids clam up in certain settings—such as school—or don’t talk at all.

After speech and behavioral therapy failed to help, the Olivieres enrolled Marc in a program for kids with learning disabilities. Marc’s teacher, Penny Weiser, had never had a student with selective mutism before. “Even in textbooks for educators, I couldn’t find any treatments to help Marc break out of his shell,” says Weiser, who hoped working with a therapy dog would help. “I thought, ‘Maybe the healing power of an animal would help Marc get the words out.’ ”

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An Amazing Breakthrough

Boo and his trainer, Lisa Edwards, volunteered to work with the class once a week. During the first session, the kids nudged each other when Edwards explained that something was wrong with Boo’s brain: As a puppy, he was such a slow learner that it took him two years to master simple tricks, like “sit” or “stay.“

“I could see the kids making the connection that Boo had disabilities—just like them,” recalls Edwards, who has written a memoir, A Dog Named Boo: How One Dog and One Woman Rescued Each Other—and the Lives They Transformed Along the Way.

As  Marc hugged Boo and rubbed his face gently against the dog’s soft fur, Edwards saw the second grader mouth the words, “Good boy.”

Speechless—with Joy

When Marc got off the school bus that afternoon, April could see that he was bursting with excitement. “Did something happen at school?” asked the mom, who thought the therapy dog was scheduled to visit the following week.

Marc’s eyes sparkled. “Boo,” he whispered, then his voice grew louder as a torrent of words spilled out.  “I petted him!  I brushed him! I love him!” The little boy raced into his bedroom, grabbed his Scooby Doo toy, and acted out the entire therapy session, using the stuffed dog as a prop. 

For once, it was April who was speechless—from joy. “It was so amazing I couldn’t believe my ears,” she recalls. “It was as if a door had opened and we could finally see what was inside. Thank goodness for Boo—that dog is a miracle worker.” That night, Marc slept with a photo of the therapy dog under his pillow, fondling it like a security blanket.

Since then, the shy little boy has blossomed both socially and academically. He’s now in mainstream classes in middle school and has a dog of his own, a terrier named Black Jack. “Now that he can finally tell us how he feels, we discovered his personality,” April told me. He’s still a very sweet, loving boy, but now he’s a talking sweetheart—with a lot to say.”

Teaching Kids to Read

Boo also volunteers at the Mahopac Public Library’s Animal Reading Friends (ARF) program, in which kids—many of whom are dyslexic, stutter, or are painfully shy—read to therapy dogs. The program is particularly meaningful to Edwards, who is dyslexic herself and once struggled with reading.

When Erich Schneider started in the program, the then 8-year-old would get so embarrassed and discouraged by the mistakes he made that he’d end up close to tears, says his mom, Maurene, a registered nurse. “He felt the pressure was on and hated to read aloud.”

When Boo met Erich, he instinctively knew what to do. He sniffed the boy’s shoes and tickled his ear with his whiskers and wet nose, making him giggle and dissolving the tension. Thanks to the dog’s encouragement, Erich decided that reading was fun—and returned month after month.  

“Sometimes Boo would put his nose on the book, like he wanted to know what happened next,” recalls Erich. “He’s very kind and helped me be a better reader.”

Could Your Dog Be a Therapy Animal?

To qualify, your dog must be friendly, well-behaved, and at least one year old. Observe how your dog acts around strangers, suggests Edwards. “Is he confident and eager to be petted? Those are signs that he’d be a good therapy dog.”

The Delta Society offers a 12-hour “pet partners” course on how to handle your dog in various settings, such as working with people who are in wheelchairs, have IV lines, or other medical equipment. After you and your dog pass a 22-part evaluation, the Delta Society will match you with volunteer opportunities at local schools, hospitals, or libraries that fit your pet’s talents.  

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Photo courtesy of Lisa Edwards.

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