A young dog teaching new tricks

ALEXANDRIA - All Charlie wants is for someone to scratch his belly and give him a treat. Little does he know, it might make a difference in a child's life.

ALEXANDRIA - All Charlie wants is for someone to scratch his belly and give him a treat. Little does he know, it might make a difference in a child's life.

Charlie is part of a program called Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) that is intended to instill a love of reading into youngsters. In fact, he's a really big part - Charlie is a 150-pound mastiff.

But as his owner, Cindee Kakac of Alexandria, will attest, Charlie is a gentle giant.

About 15 years ago, Kakac, a lifelong dog lover, became interested in using animals as therapy for people in need - the elderly, blind, depressed, those with seizure disorders, children with learning issues.

"The interaction between the human and the animal has always fascinated me," Kakac said. "I knew that dogs were intuitive, much more sensitive than humans. Animals can do things that no human can get another human to do. Period."


While earning her degree in social work, Kakac heard of a program called the Delta Society, an organization dedicated to improving people's health and well-being through positive interactions with animals. It was at the back of her mind for years, but she was busy with school, family and work.

She and her husband, Mathew, have three children. When their oldest daughter, now 9, struggled with reading, Kakac decided to pursue her dream of working with a therapy dog to help others - especially children for whom reading was not easy.

Kakac sought out a mastiff for her canine venture, because they are "loyal and affectionate without the energy that Labradors have." She adopted Charlie from the humane society.

"I just fell in love with the breed," she said. "They are big and they are lovable."

Kakac finally contacted the Delta Society and last August started the training program at a kennel in Detroit Lakes once a week.

With training complete, in December, Kakac and Charlie went through an assessment that determined if they were ready to safely handle any situations that should arise in a therapy setting, such as crowds, people petting him, small children and noise. They also tested his skills as far as obeying commands.

Further enhancing her knowledge of training animals and understanding them is what Kakac does for a living - she and her husband own and operate Affordable Pet Services, a pet boarding and pet-sitting service in Alexandria.

"It's so funny, so much of my social work training has overlapped with the business and with the READ program and doing animal-assisted activities," she commented.


Kakac and Charlie passed the assessment and were excited to get started. Under the Delta Society umbrella, there are several therapy options, such as visiting nursing homes, helping with physical therapy, and the READ program, to name a few.

Because of her daughter's reading issues, Kakac was drawn to READ, in which dog and owner visit schools and have children read to the dog. One additional day-long training workshop was required to qualify to be part of the program.

"The main goal of READ is to get kids excited about reading and to get kids to love reading," Kakac explained.

Teachers who agree to have Charlie visit find the students who are either having a difficult time learning how to read or just don't enjoy it. Those children pick out a book and spend 15 minutes reading it to the dog.

"They read directly to Charlie," Kakac explained. "It's supposed to be a magical experience with the dog and non-threatening. They are not supposed to feel self-conscious. It's supposed to be fun, fun, fun!"

If the child struggles and asks questions, Kakac answers from Charlie's point of view and all interaction is through the dog.

"A dog is just a fun way of getting them to read," she stressed.

Still in the organizational process, Kakac kicked off the program with six 1st graders from Lincoln Elementary School in Alexandria recently. She and Charlie also listened to readers at the District 206 Early Education Center and at a daycare center. So far, the pair has completed four READ visits, along with four visits to nursing homes.


With her focus on READ, Kakac hopes that next year the word gets around so more children can benefit from the program.

"It's fun to see kids excited about reading. It's fun to see kids have a connection with animals," Kakac concluded. "Seeing a kid smile and get through a book who has never gotten through a book before - it's little things like that that are so cool to me."

Interested in a READ visit?

Schools, teachers and daycare facilities interested in READ visits should contact Cindee Kakac at (320) 766-2237 or e-mail .

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