At the last day of the spring session of the Reading Buddies program at the St. Albert Public Library, Rufus just might be the most popular guy in the room.
The five-year-old dog, a Havanese, sits quietly in one corner of Forsyth Hall as children who are described as reluctant readers take turns sitting down on the mat to read to him while his handler watches quietly.
One child finishes reading to him, gives him a little scratch, and heads off to play a game with the teen who volunteers to work with him, and another child heads to the bookshelf to pick out a story for Rufus.
It seems so simple, but anyone involved with animal-assisted activities of any variety, often referred to as pet therapy, will speak enthusiastically and confidently about the benefits in making people feel more comfortable with whatever situation they're addressing.
Danika Meunier, the children's services librarian, said having a dog at the Reading Buddies sessions goes a long way to helping the kids develop an appreciation for reading and literature.
"A pet therapy dog really enhances that; it gives them the confidence," she said. "It provides someone that's not going to judge them when they're reading."
The program runs three times a year in the fall, winter and spring, and the library also brings in dogs a couple of times during the year to help students wrapped up in exam preparation to relax and de-stress.
Teen services librarian Alison Watson said response from both patrons and staff whenever a dog comes to visit is "very joyful."
"The patrons of all ages, their faces light up when they see the dog," she said. "It opens up a bit of a rapport with the patron."
And the benefits in promoting literacy aren't limited to school-aged children in a typical setting. A mile east of St. Albert at the Edmonton Young Offenders' Centre, therapy animals also play a role in helping to foster a love of literacy.
Tamara Krebs is a nurse who volunteers her time once a week with Mr. Tom, a large, grey, eight-year-old cat with an unusually placid demeanor, to listen to young offenders read.
And the reaction she gets from these youth, some of whom have been behind bars for quite some time, is telling.
"They turn into big kids," she said. "On their units they're trying to act like tough, mature adults but when they come to visit with the animals, then they're allowed to be kids."
One of the main benefits, she said, is very much like the benefits with the programs at the library – simply being able to practise and enjoy reading with a completely non-judgmental audience.
"He doesn't correct their reading. He doesn't interject. He doesn't correct the pronunciation or anything like that. He just sits and listens," Krebs said.
Ann Campbell is the executive director of the Chimo Animal Assisted Wellness and Learning Society, who is also working on a master's degree in canine science. She identified three main areas of animal-assisted interactions, and noted many examples around St. Albert.
Animal-assisted therapy involves a therapist of some sort directing the session – whether a psychotherapist, recreational therapist, occupational therapist or otherwise.
This is differentiated from animal-assisted education, in which an educational goal is established for a student and the animal is worked into the lesson plan.
Thirdly, there is the broad umbrella of animal-assisted activity, where an animal is visiting with someone without any specific therapeutic or educational goal in mind.
As a former teacher, animal-assisted education is an area Campbell is very passionate about, noting something as simple as telling a dog to "sit" can be a step in the right direction.
"I've seen it in action and it's amazing," she said. "All of a sudden the kid who couldn't say 'S' is saying 'S' just perfectly well."
She has helped establish an animal-assisted education program at Keenooshayo School working with some students there who have learning difficulties in one form or another.
Campbell said one student at the school with speech difficulties works with Lewis, a black lab, to help develop those skills. If the student is practising sight words, for example, those words will be posted up around the school with dog treats underneath them, and Lewis and the student head out to look for them.
Another student struggles with anxiety, and is often reluctant to participate or engage with other students because of it … unless the golden retriever Kiss is there, too.
"He's like a new person with the dog there," she said. "He's verbal, he's talkative, he takes the dog to other classrooms and tells the kids about the dog."
One of the areas people are perhaps most familiar with pet therapy is in the health-care field; dogs are very often seen bringing cheer to hospitals and seniors' care facilities.
In St. Albert on any given day of the week you may find a dog or two making the rounds at the Sturgeon Community Hospital, visiting with staff and patients.
Betty-Lynn Zukewich, the hospital's volunteer co-ordinator, said there are around 10 different volunteer dog-and-handler pairs that come into the hospital, so that nearly every day there is an animal on site.
"Pets relieve tension, blood pressure, anxiety, and bring some normalcy to a sterile environment," she said.
She said a specific example of the significant positive effect animals can have happened just this past winter, with a long-term patient who had become unco-operative with staff and didn't want to even get up out of bed.
One day the patient came upon one of the pet therapy animals and its handler, and her outlook changed.
"She was quite happy to walk with the dog," Zukewich said. "Each day a different dog would come and assist her with her daily walks. That was the only time she would allow someone to assist her getting out of her room."
The patient walked with the dog every day until she was discharged.
Zukewich said it's not just the patients who benefit, but everyone else in the building as well. Any staff member or visitor who likes animals tends to gravitate toward the pet therapy dogs when they come in.
Lori-Ann Goodwin, the volunteer co-ordinator with the Northern Alberta Pet Therapy Society, said while visiting with patients in a hospital can be a fairly sad experience it is made worthwhile by knowing the difference you make in someone's life.
"There are people with no family and they're all alone, and if you bring in a dog or a cat or a rabbit they go right to the animal," she said. "Then you get to talking and get to hear about their stories, and you see that smile."
Stacey Danake, a housing administrator with the Sturgeon Foundation, said the foundation's different seniors lodges have animals come in every couple of weeks, which is always a highlight with residents.
"We believe it's very important, because a lot of times pets help clients deal with stress and anxiety," she said. "I actually heard one of our residents tell me she feels it helps her with her pain management."
While the benefits of animal-assisted interactions are clear to those involved with the process in its various forms, it can be a difficult experience as well and not everyone or every animal is cut out for it.
There are several organizations overseeing pet therapy in Alberta, but in each case both the animal and the handler must go through a screening process before being let loose in hospitals, libraries or schools.
Janice Eglinski, the volunteer who handles Rufus the Reading Buddies dog, decided to get involved with pet therapy when she saw the impact Rufus had on her own father when visiting him in the nursing home.
She decided to register with the Northern Alberta Pet Therapy Society, and was surprised at the rigorous training process they had to go through.
"More than training the pet, they're training the human," she said.
It began with a humans-only information session outlining what the pet therapy handler role entails. After, Rufus was screened to determine if his temperament was appropriate to the role.
That was followed by a weekend training session and a final test, and once they passed that test Rufus was given a green bandana with his name on it, the de facto uniform for therapy animals with the society, and then there was a month-long mentorship/internship program.
Campbell said the relatively rigorous screening process is similar in her organization, adding the key character traits of an animal suited for therapy work is that they are calm, collected and assured.
"The thing about a therapy dog is they need to be calm," she said. "You can drop a skateboard or make a loud noise in front of them and they're not going to react."
This is an understandable requirement given the high-paced and often stressful atmosphere where the dogs go in and do their work.
Despite the challenges associated with doing the work, though, Campbell passionately stressed the positive impact therapy dogs can have in their various roles.
"It's really, really important, and people should understand that it's definitely a viable alternative to treating people who suffer from many, many issues," she said.
And for the handlers like Eglinski, that benefit goes both ways.
"Every time I go (to the hospital), even though there's a lot of sadness there's somebody who says, 'You have made my entire week,'" she said. "You can't imagine how wonderful that feels, so as difficult as it is, it's very rewarding."
For more information about various forms of pet therapy and the different kinds of animal-assisted interactions, visit www.caawls.org and www.pettherapysociety.com.