Vail Pet Partners: Dog days in the classroom |

Vail Pet Partners: Dog days in the classroom

Vail Pet Partners is a dog therapy program that has been around the valley for nine years. Team of dogs and owners go into schools to help kids with reading, as well as hospitals to help patients focus on something besides their illnesses.

EAGLE COUNTY – When Vail Pet Partners presented two new iPad notebooks to students in a local reading program, the kids were so excited they showed the gadgets to Moose and Jetta.

Moose and Jetta would be dogs; their people would be Rita Skelton and Nanette Kuich. Sure, the kids were happy the humans came to visit, but they’re humans. The dogs love to listen.

“It makes reading more playful,” said Sally Clair, who started Vail Pet Partners along with Blondie Vucich.

Vail Pet Partners is a dog therapy program that’s been in the valley for nine years.

The local Pet Partners program is part of a nationwide effort in hospitals and schools. More than 10,000 people volunteer across the country.

Locally it started with the Vail Valley Medical Center as a way to provide comfort for patient, lifting spirits and lowering blood pressure. The dogs still go to the hospital and Jack’s Place, for patients and families at the Shaw Regional Cancer Center.

“The dogs are the go-between. At Jack’s Place or the hospital, people sometimes stay for days or weeks,” Clair said. “The dogs are a venue to open up patients’ lives, to get them to talk about something besides their illnesses and injuries.”

Pet Partners are in the Eagle County Charter School and June Creek elementary as part of the Wagging Tales reading program.

Mark Ruark is the Puppy Whisperer and owns Wags and Whiskers. He runs dog training classes of all sorts and his son attends the Eagle County Charter Academy. Seven years ago, Ruark approached headmaster Elizabeth Dekanich with the Wagging Tales idea. The school now has years of success stories.

She and others with the Wagging Tales program say it creates life-long readers, all because they can read to a dog without the fear of judgment.

Schools across the nation that use the program have reported dramatic increases in reading scores, some as much as 80 percent, especially in non-native English speakers.

“Those kids read, then look up with those questioning eyes wondering if they pronounced everything correctly,” Clair said. “When the dogs go in, the kids are concentrating on the dog and dogs don’t judge them.”

Pet Partners goes to June Creek once a week for Wagging Tales, where more than two dozen students read to a dog.

It turns out that the more the dogs listen to the kids read, the better the kids read. When they read to a dog, they feel safe, Clair said.

A friend in California was doing this when Clair was out for a visit. Clair decided she had everything she needed to start a local chapter – a dog and people who could be helped by visiting with one.

It’s not complicated, but it’s not for every dog, Clair said.

Clair has been doing it for seven years, her dog eight and a half years.

“The dog has to sit, stay and behave. It has to perk up with someone wants to pet it,” Clair said.

Other than that, it has to be a social creature.

Vail Pet Partners has 24 teams right now. Teams spend two days at the hospital and two days in a school and when the dogs are done they’re, well … dog tired.

“Sometimes when they go to the hospital they’ll see 50 people between patients and staff,” Clair said. “The staff gets as much out of it as the patients.”

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or