Reading Buddy, Therapy Dog, Educator
Pitbull is educating and changing perceptions
Elle knows how to make an entrance. Whether she is walking down the street, entering a classroom or appearing on stage at a celebrity event, all eyes are on her. Most people comment on how beautiful, smart and calm she is – but there are some who think she is dangerous.
Elle is a therapy dog, but that isn’t why she is misunderstood. It is because she is a pit bull. In honor of Pit Bull Awareness Month in October, her story shows the positive qualities of the breed, and the influence a good owner can have on a dog and a community.
Elle and owner Leah Brewer live in Roanoke Rapids, NC. Since 2010 they worked as a team with Therapy Dogs Incorporated visiting nursing homes and schools in their community. The also participate in a reading program called “Tail Wagging Tales” to help students practice reading and strengthen their confidence. Students read to Elle and when they feel ready, they read and make presentations in front of their class.
“Elle was featured in a children’s book called Kiefer and Friends, and all her readers loved reading a story with her as one of the featured dogs,” said Brewer. “Elle doesn’t care if the student is a beginning reader or doesn’t like to read in front of people. She calmly sits by their side with a non-judgmental ear and offers a reassuring paw when need.”
Overcoming Breed Prejudices
When Leah first approached schools about the reading program, she was met with skepticism because Elle was a pit bull. That didn’t stop Leah. She was determined to show that Elle was a wonderful ambassador for a breed of dog that is often misunderstood.
Elle’s training and mission has as much to do with changing perceptions of pit bulls as with anything else. Elle helped a young boy overcome his fear of dogs during the library program, Brewer saw that as a breakthrough.
“At first, he was interested in Elle, but wouldn’t come near her,” Brewer said. “Over the span of a year, he went from that to being able to walk her on those final two sessions.”
Leah and Elle began to change minds by visiting the local retirement home and schools to demonstrate the safe ways children and seniors should interact with dogs. (Sadly, more than half of all dog bite victims in this country are children and senior citizens.)
“I remind the children that even though they know Elle, she is a dog and because of that, they should always ask first before petting her. Many times I have to remind the adults of this too because when they see Elle, they want to hug her. I can tell by Elle’s body language that she isn’t comfortable so I politely remind them about the proper way to approach a dog, even a dog they know.”
People began to notice that even though Elle is a strong dog, she has a strong, responsible and loving owner. Soon, the school was open to the idea of the reading program.
All of the years of hard work in their small pocket of North Carolina didn’t go unnoticed. In 2013, Leah Brewer and Elle the pit bull were honored when Elle was named the 2013 American Hero Dog of the Year at the American Humane Association’s (AHA) Hero Dog Awards. Once misunderstood, Elle is now the “Hometown Hero” in her community.
A new mission: Dog bite prevention
Today Elle is an ambassador for a new message about dog bite prevention and the fact that any dog can bite. Educating the public about responsible dog ownership and how to safely interact with a dog is more important than a dogs’ breed when it comes to reducing dog bite incidents.
To help spread this message and serve as a role model for other dog owners, Leah and Elle were invited to be a part of the National Dog Bite Prevention Week Coalition (May 18-24, 2014) by State Farm.
“State Farm met Leah and Elle during the 2013 American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards and we knew that they would be great representatives for dog bite prevention,” said Heather Paul, Public Affairs Specialist for State Farm. “Educating children about the proper way to interact with dogs and the importance of being a loving and responsible owner are key to reducing dog bites. Leah and Elle are perfect examples for this message.”