MOUNT VERNON — Sixth-graders from Mount Vernon Middle School have continued to quietly give up their Saturdays in aid of dogs at the Knox County Animal Shelter. These students, members of a student coalition known as the Working Dogs Awareness Group, or WAGS, spend an hour of their time each week reading to the adoptable dogs for an extra dose of socialization.
The program began four years ago, WAGS coordinator and sixth-grade teacher Trudy Debolt previously explained to the News. It began when the entire MVMS sixth-grade class was required to read “Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam,” by Cynthia Kadohata, a work of historical fiction that sheds light on dogs that were donated to the United States military to be used as scout dogs during the Vietnam War.
Typically, the group is allowed to bring in nine students each week to read to the dogs, Debolt said, but following the 67 dogs that were brought in from Pittie Paw Rescue Sept. 18, the student coalition doubled its numbers to 18 students per session, so that both sides of the adoption center, which is completely full, can feel the love.
“For us, we just love them all, we don’t really care where they came from,” Debolt said. “Normally, we try to just read to one, but gosh, those dogs need us more than anything. When they found out they were going to bring all of them in here, they wanted to make sure that we would have extra kids available.”
According to Deputy Dog Warden Brook Brown, there are currently at least 35 dogs from Pittie Paw at the shelter, with approximately half up for adoption. She said that 20 to 25 dogs from Pittie Paw have already been adopted out or rescued.
“It just good for the kids and the dogs,” Brown said. “It helps the kids learn the responsibility of what it takes to care for an animal and it gives the dogs extra attention they don’t always get.”
Brown explained that Pitbulls, as a breed, can often have an aggressive stigma, but are not all bad. The students had no fear sitting right next to the dogs, who exhibited no signs of aggression. With the students coming in to read to them each week, it shows the dogs that they can relax sometimes, Brown said.
“The kids really stepped up,” Debolt said. “When I explained to them what was going on, and asked for more kids, if they’d be willing to come, they volunteered right away. Every week, students will say, ‘if somebody cancels let me know, I’ll come.’ It gives me hope for the future. There’s no doubt. I think I’ve got about 43 kids in the program now and it just keeps growing more and more.”
Debolt explained that she has extended the program to students beyond her own team, with sixth-graders from other teams that she is not necessarily teaching, who have joined the program and brought friends.
“I like to volunteer because I feel like I’m making a difference,” sixth-grader Grace Gentry explained. “There are so many dogs that are unwanted and don’t have homes and I feel like it helps them feel happy. Making them happy makes me happy.”
Debolt explained that when the students first begin reading, the dogs are all up jumping and barking, excited to see them, but as they settle in and begin reading the dogs relax, get quiet and often fall asleep next to the readers.
“I always tell the kids that that’s the greatest compliment, that they can bring the dogs that much peace,” Debolt said. “That’s probably the one time all day that they can lay down and just feel safe.”
Due to the increased number of students in the program, Debolt has brought in an additional teacher supervisor, with Teresa O’Hara, joining the WAGS group. She explained that she did not want to participate at first because she thought seeing the dogs would make her too sad.
“The dogs get so calm when the kids come in and read to them,” O’Hara said. “The dogs will come up and lay down, and you see just how much they want to lean against the cages, just to feel human touch. When you first walk in, they bark so much, but then after the kids sit down and start reading, they get so quiet. I think most people don’t believe it, but it’s so wonderful to know they have that connection for an hour a week.”
The students were unable to attend the program for weeks due to a Giardia outbreak with the dogs, which is a contagious disease, halting adoption and the WAGS volunteerism. Sixth-grader Kia Tullos had an extremely emotional response, so much so she was moved to tears in class and after reading to the dogs, while not being able to read to the dogs. She explained that she wanted to join the program after losing her own dog.
“When the dogs had Giardia and we couldn’t come, I normally come every Saturday, whether I’m scheduled or not, so when we couldn’t go, it was tearing a hole in my heart,” Tullos said. “It really hurt and I was breaking down more and more. I don’t want dogs to give up on life or give up on hope or people.”
Seeing the impact that the students have had on the shelter dogs and their dedication to come back week after week has fostered a sense of pride in Debolt and a hope for the future.
“I’m very proud knowing the amount of care these kids have being 12 years old and how this is going to impact them for the rest of their lives,” Debolt said. “WAGS is something that will be with them forever. And when they come here they know that they’re making a difference.”
For more information and updates regarding the WAGS readers, follow their Facebook page at WorkingDogAwarenessGroup. To see adoptable dogs from the Knox County Animal Shelter, follow Dogs of Knox on Facebook, or check the Knox County Animal Shelter website at www.co.knox.oh.us/index.php/county-offices/dog-shelter-animal-control or Petfinder and www.petfinder.com/member/us/oh/mount-vernon/knox-county-animal-shelter-oh799/.