May 7, 2009 at 7:14 a.m.
Charlie the therapy dog has made another friend.
You can't help but like Charlie-- he's the color of shiny chocolate and his sturdy tail has got this goofy circular motion to it. Even in his approach, when he hasn't yet touched you, he has touched you.
His owner Jim Mielke grasped that Charlie had a special soul when rescuing the dog two years ago from a Spooner, Wisconsin facility. He knew it when he enrolled Charlie in "Tail Waggin' Tutors." And, now students at Sunrise River School in North Branch know it too.
Mielke, of Almelund along with Charlie, his 3 (or maybe 4)-year-old chocolate lab, are regulars in the therapy circuit. They sometimes visit residential facilities in North Branch like Comforts of Home and The Villages-- but they really anticipate Thursdays at Sunrise River Elementary. This is the day students who need extra practice on their reading skills read aloud to Charlie.
Mielke said the vinyl reading mat is laid out in the cafeteria and 15 to 20 students spend time reading to the nonjudgmental dog who gives 110 percent of his attention to the kids.
Therapy dog protocol requires that Mielke, as the handler, remain right nearby. Once in a while, he said, he'll help a student with a word or phrase but he usually just settles the student in, and listens.
Therapy Dogs International, which Charlie is registered with, promotes Tail Waggin' Tutors because children are not self-conscious when reading aloud to dogs. "Tail Waggin' Tutors" is one of many TDI programs that give approved animals and their handlers the opportunity to volunteer and give back to their community.
There's 19,000 dogs registered with TDI, according to its promotional material. It was founded in 1976 and runs on registration dues and donations.
Mielke remarked that the rewarding thing about volunteering with Charlie at Sunrise River School is seeing the progress kids have made in the brief time Charlie's been part of their life. Mielke said one child who feared all dogs, is now allowing Charlie to make physical contact.
Other children who have social skill disconnects are experiencing sharing, taking turns and consideration of others thanks to Charlie.
All the youngsters who participate do so only with parents' approval.
Sunrise River instructor Colleen Croft agrees that her young students improve their reading, "absolutely," but they also are gaining "periphery" skills, like understanding a calendar. "They know what day Thursday is," she said.
They also are more comfortable being around animals and Mielke teaches them about approaching strange dogs out in public. One student with allergies triggered by dogs really wanted to participate and does so at a distance, and is becoming more social, she added.
In Croft's opinion it's the dog and owner combination that makes this work. "He is as much a part of this as Charlie is," Croft said of Mielke. "You couldn't find a more soft spoken, caring person."
Mielke recalled that he went looking for an indoor dog companion because he's in his woodworking shop for long stretches of time. Retired for nine years, he was really just wanting a four-legged buddy.
Once Charlie moved in, though, Mielke realized what he'd gotten instead was a calling.
He looked into TDI therapy dog pre-requisites at the group's website when Charlie's extreme good nature began to make itself known. Charlie was evaluated by a TDI dog evaluator at a canine obedience school in Hugo, south of Forest Lake. Charlie passed the temperment and "good citizen" hurdles without any special training at all. "Although," Mielke joked, "we did take some classes at Peterson's (in North Branch) but that was more for me than for Charlie."
With 50 hours under his collar, Charlie has earned his official TDI red bandana. Many other incentive awards will be claimed by Charlie, we're sure.
Commenting has been disabled for this item.