Lending an ear


Standard poodle boosts students’ reading skills

Originally published in Taos News

Children may be shy, or not totally sure of how to pronounce certain words, but when they read to Troi they know they have an attentive, non-judgmental listener. They go ahead confidently and become so engrossed in the story they are reading that their inhibitions just vanish.

Troi is a four-year-old standard poodle that visits Arroyos del Norte Elementary School once a week with her handler, Annette Rubin.

Teacher Claire Briggs calls Rubin “fantastic” and her work “highly motivating” for her and her students.

“Not only Miss Annette brings in her valuable experience as a retired teacher, but she is also a great mentor for both the students and myself,” said Briggs. “We all look forward to working with her.”

“Having a child read to a dog has many benefits,” Rubin said. “Dogs won’t correct them or laugh at them. Children, in turn, don’t feel nervous or intimidated; they can relax and enjoy the reading experience without pressures.”

A session with Troi

Before a session starts, Briggs gives Rubin a profile of the children she will be working with so she can assess what their needs are. Then the students take turns, individually, reading to her and Troi.

“When they read to Troi, she listens to them,” said Rubin. “You look at her and you can see she is really attentive.”

Sometimes, after the students have read, Rubin tells them that Troi is not sure what the story is about. Could they explain it to her in their own words? So they retell the story and show their comprehension of it.

“They build a relationship with Troi and feel confident that they can explain to her what they already know,” Rubin said. “She is receptive, open and unconditionally loving.”

Briggs said that a huge benefit of this activity is its emotional component.

“The children learn to trust the dog and, in the process, they learn to trust their own abilities,” she said.

Once the students finish reading, they get to ask Troi to do a little trick for them—she can high five and sit, among other skills. When she does, they say “good girl” and give her a treat.

“It’s all relational,” said Rubin. “They see how well she responds to a positive approach. They do the same.”

Troi knows how to perform nineteen different tasks. She can even “speak.”

“She barks in a very low, ‘indoor voice,’” said Rubin, “because she knows we are in a classroom. Nothing like her ‘outdoor voice’, the one she reserves for chasing prairie dogs and bunnies near our house.”

Rubin has been volunteering at Arroyos del Norte for two years.  She works with three to six students in any given day.

“The best thing is that I see the best of the children,” she said. “They are always happy to meet Troi and work with her. She loves them too. When summer comes, she looks at me, points to the door and the book bag and seems to ask, ‘Why aren’t we going to school?’ She misses the children!”

The handler and the dog: a shared journey

Rubin was an elementary school counselor and has over twenty-five years of experience in education. She also worked with early childhood special ed programs, gifted children, and science and math teachers.

She and her husband Richard Rubin discovered Taos in the summer of 1968 but didn’t start living here fulltime until 2012. It was then when they got Troi.

“It was our intention for her to be a therapy dog,” said Rubin. “As soon as we met her, at the age of seven weeks, we knew she was special. She was very sensitive, even at that young age. She was bred for personality.”

The dog was named after a character on Star Trek, The Next Generation.

“Counselor Deanna Troi is a highly empathic woman, with long, brown, curly hair,” said Rubin.  “She is the ship’s counselor, highly competent and beautiful. Her big brown eyes seem to see right to the heart of her crew, especially when they are distressed. Troi lives up to her name beautifully.”

Rubin started training Troi when the dog was two years old.

“I went to a handler’s course,” she said. “The exam was ten days later and I had to train her for all nineteen skills in that short time.”

They both worked hard together but Troi didn’t pass the test. Undeterred, they did more homework.

“The second time she passed the test with flying colors,” said Rubin. “So that has become part of her story. We need to prepare, to practice over and over in order to achieve the desired results. We share this with the students.”

Now Troi is registered as a therapy dog with Pet Partners, a national organization that helps train handlers and dogs as a team.

“We are certified to come to schools, nursing homes and other places,” said Rubin. “It’s a very satisfying kind of activity that we both enjoy doing.”

To find out more about Pet Partners visit https://petpartners.org