Reading With Marv: A Therapy Dog's Greatest Gift
- Erin Swanson
“Which book do you want to read today, Marv?” a third grade girl holds two options in front of Marv’s wet-nose. Marv sniffs their covers, his floppy ears perking and tail quickening. He bonks his snout on, The Night I Followed the Dog.
“Oh my gosh, you chose the dog story!” the student giggles as she plops down on a giant teddy bear, nestled in a nook between cubbies. Marv crawls beside the girl and rests his curly-coated head on her lap. The girl begins to read aloud, holding the pictures up for Marv to see.
Marv, a certified therapy dog, somewhat resembles a teddy bear himself – perhaps crossed with a muppet. A unique mix of boxer, poodle, pit bull, and german shepherd, he delivers constant smiles to the 2nd - 4th graders he visits at Elk Meadow Elementary.
Mary, Marv’s human companion and therapy dog handler, sits beside them on the carpet, tethered to Marv by leash. She loves listening to the kids read – and gets a hoot out of watching Marv in action.
The third grader reads the last line, closes the book, and asks, “Did you like the story, Marv?” Marv rolls over on his back and cracks a wide smile. The student laughs and gives him a few belly rubs.
Mary pulls out a treat from her Treat Trader™ bag and asks the student if she’d like to wrap up their time together with one of Marv’s tricks. The answer is an emphatic yes.
The girl leads Marv through “shake,” offering him the treat with an open palm. The satisfied pup does a celebratory wiggle and leans against the girl for a few more pets, before he and Mary make their way to their next reading buddy.
Marv: The Ultimate Reading Partner
When not busy with their day jobs as Ruffwear’s Retail Brand Experience Designer (and the unofficial Director of Dogs & Culture for Marv), Mary and Marv are a therapy dog team for the Reading Partners Program at Elk Meadow Elementary School in Bend, Oregon.
They meet with children at The Roost, a drop-in classroom for children of mixed grade levels to receive extra, one-on-one support from teachers.
The excitement is palpable whenever Marv enters the classroom. On their first day volunteering this school year, Mary and Marv were greeted by a swarm of children who crowded around Marv, showering him with hugs and pets.
Marv – a total ham for attention – soaked in every second of it. Mary laughed and suddenly understood why “crowded petting” was one of the tests in therapy dog certification.
Reading with Marv is part of the students’ incentive and reward for good behavior. During their visits, Mary and Marv spend about 15 minutes each with 3 - 5 students. And even the most reading-resistant students tend to warm up to the idea of reading when Marv is involved.
One fourth grader who insisted he “can’t” read, still curled up next to Marv as Mary read a book aloud. Marv’s comforting presence started to soften the boy. Mary paused, pointing to a word for the boy to read himself. They continued like this until the story’s end.
And if a child doesn’t feel like reading at all, that’s okay too. Sometimes, children prefer to chat – gushing about the dogs in their lives. One of Mary’s favorite moments: when a 2nd grader told her his grandma has a 31-year-old puppy who’s part Chihuahua and part cantaloupe.
The details might have gotten a bit mixed up, but the sentiment was there – kids lighting up as they share how meaningful dogs are in their lives.
The effect Marv has reaches past the students to the entire school community. From the moment he trots into the front lobby, staff and teachers brighten. He greets them with his signature tail thuds, perked up ears, and goofy-eyed smiles. One look at Marv, and stress begins to melt away.
Mary loves watching the ripple effects of Marv’s joy. “He is so happy and quirky that it just makes other people feel that way, too.”
The Journey to Become a Therapy Dog
If you met 6-year-old Marv today, you’d probably think he had always been this cheerful, outgoing, and charismatic. But when Mary first adopted Marv as a 1-year-old, he had crippling separation anxiety and was fearful of dogs.
Mary threw herself into training him, dedicating countless hours to building his confidence and sense of security.
“I was committed to it. I knew he was a happy dog, but he just had a lot of fear and anxiety. Going through that training process and watching that my behavior changed his behavior really bonded us closely. Very quickly after we started training, he came into his own.”
She was thrilled to see the outcome: his fun-loving, big personality shone through. Mary brought Marv to work with her at the Ruffwear office, and she instantly saw how people were drawn to him. Coworkers began their own morning rituals of greeting Marv – huddling around him for pets, cuddles, and laughter.
He even became known around town – a vet technician said Marv was her favorite dog to work with, and when Mary drove him around Bend (his head sticking out the window), she received texts saying, “I just saw Marv, and it made my day!”
During their daily trail walks, Marv zoomed around the trail – the exercise and fresh air helped him be his best, quirky self. He trotted around with his dog pals and greeted people with unbridled delight. Each interaction with Marv left hikers smiling.
Seeing how much joy Marv brought people, Mary decided to certify him as a therapy dog when he was 3 years old. Through the national therapy dog organization, Pet Partners, Mary completed an extensive handlers course online and took Marv to an in-person handler and dog evaluation.
She led Marv through 17 simulated tasks – from basic commands to more complicated situations, like interacting with wheelchairs, walkers, and loud noises. Not to mention, passing other dogs without acknowledging or greeting them.
As Marv successfully passed these tasks, you’d hardly believe he used to be fearful of dogs and new situations. Becoming a certified therapy dog was a true testament to his growth.
Mary tried out several therapy dog assignments to see what fit Marv best. They volunteered at a nursing home, memory care facility, community college, office, and an elementary school. While Marv was comfortable in all of them, Mary felt like he was his truest self in the elementary school.
“I had an inkling going into it that his favorite would be schools, just because kids are his bread and butter. He loves them. If I go anywhere that kids are around, I’ll turn and kids will be hanging all over him. And he’ll be all about it.”
It’s true, Marv’s enthusiasm for the job is sky-high. Any time he sees Mary take out his therapy dog uniform, the Front Range® Harness in Red Sumac, he dances his paws in excitement.
For Mary, the feeling is mutual:
“I also personally like to volunteer, so being able to volunteer with my dog, that’s almost too good to be true in my mind. I can’t believe I get to do this with him. It’s so special.”
Getting More Teams Out There
Mary hopes others will explore opportunities to volunteer with their dogs. In her words, it’s the “ultimate experience.” She encourages people to start by exploring the process for certification with Pet Partners or other accredited organizations. Then, seek out therapy dog programs in their community.
“I would love to get more teams out there. There are so many more opportunities for our dogs to make a difference. I want people to know that it’s there – and if their dog is a personality match, they could be doing it, too.”
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