Valentine Puppy Pen Pal Program encourages long-distance relationship with therapy dogs
TINA L. SCOTT
T.B. Scott Library in Merrill is launching a Valentine Puppy Pen Pal Program during February. Local therapy dog handler, Mark Mehlos, and his two golden retrievers, Kiva and Tucker, are helping make the program possible. Kiva and Tucker are actually fairly well-known to children in this area.
Mehlos and the dogs (initially just Kiva) have been visiting kids in Merrill-area classrooms for about four years. “Before COVID,” Mehlos said, “We would do five days a week, volunteering for an hour or several visiting throughout the elementary schools for MAPS, the middle school, Lincoln Hills, and the library in the summer.”
From the Headstart kids at Pine River School for Young Learners to the teens at Lincoln Hills, children have embraced the dogs, and it’s been a win-win for everyone. Playing with the dogs at recess or hide-and-go-seek with the dogs indoors added fun and excitement and something for kids to look forward to at the schools. Reading to the dogs provided children with a non-judgmental audience and the opportunity to improve reading skills.
Quiet time when Kiva just wandered around classrooms enabled her to help hurting children, especially those with special needs or suffering from trauma or who are going through issues at home or school. Kiva has an uncanny and intuitive ability to seek out the children who are hurting and need her the most, and area teachers have seen her do it. Even children brushing her fur is therapeutic. “Kids brush her fur and the tactile sensation and the brushing would just really soothe them,” Mehlos said.
Then there were the hugs. Children, who desperately needed a hug or interaction with another living being, were drawn to Kiva. “Kids having a hard time would just get down on the floor and hug her,” Mehlos said. The therapeutic benefits are enormous on so many levels.
Since COVID forced most schools to close to visitors, both the children and the dogs have suffered. The kids have missed their visits, and Mehlos said the dogs have, too. “Sled dogs need to pull to be happy, and therapy dogs need to be with people and emote to be happy,” he said,
Carolyn Forde and Andrea Bennett, Children’s Librarians at T.B. Scott Library, worked together with Mehlos to create the Puppy Pen Pal Program, and Valentine’s Day is the perfect occasion to kick it off. The kids will once again have the opportunity to interact, on some level at least, with the dogs. Promoting the program has created the opportunity for the dogs to interact with more people, and that has been beneficial to Kiva and Tucker, Mehlos said.
Forde and Bennett are excited about using the opportunity to promote literacy. Each month there is an area of focus with the schools. “February’s focus is on writing,” Bennett said, “So for school-age kids, it’s writing. But we wanted to include the preschool kids, as well, so for them the focus is on drawing, because that’s how they develop their fine motor skills to become good readers and writers.”
“Our goal is to encourage 100 area youth to send a Valentine to Kiva and Tucker: 50 preschool youth and 50 school age youth,” said Forde.
The library has created Preschool folders and “Pen Pal Packets” to make it easy for children to interact with Kiva and Tucker. These materials may be requested by a teacher or counselor for selected students. They will also be included by request in Family Storytime activity bags and Project Packs given to area youth through the T.B. Scott Library during the month of February.
School age youth will receive a “Pen Pal Packet” with supplies to make and send a Valentine and mail it to the dogs. Preschoolers will receive a folder with supplies to also make and send a Valentine by drawing rather than writing. Stickers and other goodies are also included in the packets, along with a postcard. Children who would like a longer term pen pal relationship with Kiva and Tucker can also write out and mail the postcard.
Like any good Pen Pal Program, the mail will flow both ways. The kids can anticipate getting mail, too.
“All participants who send a Valentine will receive a special message from Mark and the dogs,” Forde said.
“Mark has agreed to continue corresponding with kids who want a longer-term pen pal through the program and send in the postcard,” Bennett added.
“Many area youths have developed a relationship with Mark, Kiva, and Tucker,” Forde said, “And this initiative also serves to support the continuation of these healthy relationships during a stressful time.”
Retired elementary school teacher, Deb Sommerfeldt, at Maple Creek Dog Training trained both Kiva and Tucker to work with children as therapy dogs.