Guest Post by Lainee Cole
My dad loved dogs. I don’t think we were ever without at least one while growing up. My favorite was a collie pup named Magoo. I still smile when I picture him watching Saturday morning cartoons with us, cocking his head and whining at the TV when Mr. Magoo would say, “Oh Magoo, you’ve done it again!”
Dogs were such a huge part of our lives, so it seemed only natural to want the characters in my books to have dogs, too. Mistletoe came to life for me after I read several news articles about school children reading to shelter dogs. I never had the opportunity to participate in such a program, but it’s definitely something I would have done had I been given the chance.
Reading aloud to adults can be intimidating. Dogs don’t judge young readers, so reading aloud to them allows children to practice without interruption or criticism. Studies show these students have lower absentee rates and complete homework assignments more often. That’s easy to believe! What’s more relaxing than curling up with a good book and a warm body at your side?
Shelters can be noisy, scary places. Many dogs are fearful, keeping to the back of their kennels. They may pant or shake, act aggressive, or bark excessively when visitors come to the shelter—all signs of stress. Children in reading programs witness their fears. The programs teach children how to read a dog’s body language, to sit sideways and talk in quiet voices, and to reinforce positive behavior by rewarding those who show interest with doggie treats.
Some programs ask participants to perform a visualization exercise such as this: Close your eyes and pretend you’re one of the shelter dogs. Use your senses. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? How do you feel? Organizers hope that if children can view things from a shelter dog’s perspective, maybe they can apply their experiences and their empathy to other animals they meet.
These special programs multi-task with the best of us, helping children and dogs alike. Reading is a calm activity that allows children to help prepare shelter animals for their forever homes by providing companionship, socialization, and non-threatening human interactions. This increases shelter animals’ chances of being adopted. In return, children improve their own literacy without being judged on their abilities.
In The Mistletoe Effect, I flipped this idea and brought shelter dogs to the children. Five shelter dogs go to school as part of a program called Assisted Reading with Friends (ARF). Mistletoe the Border Collie becomes the star of the story when she seeks out a troubled young second-grader named Holly. Holly’s mother has recently left her with a father she doesn’t know; a father who didn’t even know she existed. As Holly and her father struggle to get acquainted, Mistletoe and Holly’s teacher help to make the transition easier. A perfect example of how shelter dogs and children can help each other!
Here’s a peek at Lainee’s romance story, which is one of the two stories included in the Christmas Anthology, Captured by Christmas.
Christmas is second-grade teacher Tess McCall’s least favorite holiday, but she’s doing her best not to let it show. Learning he’s a father to seven-year-old Holly makes Alex Randle anxious about the upcoming holidays. When Tess’s class starts reading to shelter dogs, Holly and the antics of shelter dog Mistletoe lead them all to rediscover the magic of Christmas.
“Okay class. Everyone have a seat on the floor,” she called. The kids responded quickly, as usual. They were a really good group of kids. “Mrs. Shull is going to tell us about her dogs, and then you’ll all get a chance to spend some time with them.”
While the kids were settling down, Tess took a position across from the door. From there she would be able to see Mr. Randle if he returned. The idea of a stranger observing her class was not acceptable. What if he wasn’t who he claimed to be? She straightened her shoulders. One thing was for sure. He’d have to go through her to get to the children.
The shelter volunteers lined up at the front of the room with the dogs beside them. Connie wasted no time engaging the students.
“Hello Mrs. Shull,” they greeted her, just as they had been taught.
“I work part time at the Centerville Animal Shelter and I brought some friends with me today. They are part of ARF.”
Some of the kids giggled. Tess didn’t blame them. ARF was kind of a funny name. Connie barely held back a smile.
“ARF means Assisted Reading with Friends. You all have friends in class, right?”
“Arf, Arf, Arf!” Billy Owens barked. The other students laughed. He was the class clown.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Connie said, grinning. “Our dogs get lonely at the shelter. They each have their own cage, but they don’t get to run around and play like you do on the playground. They want lots of love and attention, and they love to make new friends, so let me introduce them to you.”
Connie gave the border collie beside her a command and then moved to the opposite end of the line. The dog stayed put. She had a beautiful black and white coat, with warm brown eyes begging for attention. Tess itched to call her over and pet her, but that would go against Connie’s command. Her assistant wouldn’t appreciate that. She also didn’t want to set a bad example for her students. She’d just have to wait.
“This is Rascal,” Connie said, petting a large brown and black dog. “He’s four years old and he’s a Labrador mix. He’s very friendly. Do I have any volunteers who would like to read to him?”
Tess smiled as small hands shot into the air, waving excitedly. Connie picked three and asked them to join Rascal’s handler. In her no-nonsense manner, she introduced a terrier mix named Sparky, a springer spaniel named Bentley, and a German shepherd named Max. Each time, different hands shot into the air. She divided the students into groups until she had only four children and the border collie left.
“This last pretty lady is Mistletoe. She’s a three-year-old border collie.”
“Why do you call her Mistletoe?” Dylan Miller asked. Her students were always curious, wanting to learn more. Tess loved being able to stimulate their minds.
“She was found under a tree covered in mistletoe. It was also close to Christmas, so we thought Mistletoe was a good name for her,” Connie told the students. “Those of you left get to read to her, so come on up. If you aren’t with the dog you wanted to read to today, don’t worry. Next time, we’ll mix you up so everyone gets a chance to read with every dog.”
Tess smiled as a chorus of excited voices responded. The volunteers spread out across the room with their dogs and their group of students. In a matter of minutes, the well-oiled ARF machine started working its magic.
This was why she’d wanted to bring the ARF program into her classroom. Even if it was almost Christmas. It would be great for the students. Some of them were already good readers. Tess hoped those who weren’t would find the dogs’ presence calming, so they might relax and not stumble over their words.
She glanced at the door, thankful to see the window clear of faces. She wandered around the classroom, observing the interactions. The dogs were very well-behaved. Some of the children held back, but Connie and her volunteers didn’t push them. One child in each group was reading aloud, while most of the others were petting the dogs. It was surprisingly quiet and calm for a change.
Suddenly Mistletoe started to whine. Connie immediately moved to that group and bent down to pet the dog. “What’s wrong, Mistletoe?”
The dog whined again and then jumped up and ran to the reading corner. Tess’s heart plummeted when she saw Holly sitting alone. How had she missed her student escaping back into the corner? No, she couldn’t watch all of them at once, but based on Holly’s earlier actions she should have been paying more attention to the girl.
Mistletoe’s ears perked forward as she crouched and slowly approached Holly, nudging her arm. Holly looked at the dog. She was so sad Tess just wanted to hug her. The dog moved around and nudged her other arm. Holly petted her then, and Mistletoe lay down, resting her head in Holly’s lap. A small smile hovered on Holly’s lips, the first real smile Tess had seen all day.
“Come, Mistletoe,” Connie called out. Mistletoe jumped up, nudged Holly’s arm and trotted a few steps away. She stopped and turned back to Holly, whining. Her ears perked and dropped as she looked back to Connie, who was standing near her group, then back to Holly, clearly torn.
“Holly, I think Mistletoe would like you to join her group. Would you come sit with us?”
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About the author
Lainee Cole is a Midwestern girl who writes in the company of a husband always trying to talk to her. An avid reader, she decided at a young age she wanted to be a writer in order to give other readers the same freedom she discovered in books. Writing romance challenges her; she loves developing characters and figuring out what makes them tick. Her characters often take on a life of their own, surprising and annoying her. But writing fictional characters also gives her hope and inspires her to follow her dreams. Lainee’s goal is for her stories to make readers laugh and cry, give them hope, and encourage them to believe in the power of love. When she’s not writing or reading, Lainee enjoys spending time with family and friends; hiking, camping, and traveling with her husband; and consuming daily doses of chocolate.