Mary Kegarise

Mary KegariseGUTSY GAL AWARD RECIPIENT

Mary Kegarise

Whoever said it couldn’t be done has not met Mary Kegarise. She has taught dogs to read. Sort of.

Kegarise is the recipient of Houston Woman Magazine’s 2012 Gutsy Gal Award. She received this award at the publication’s Sixth Annual Nominate HER Awards Luncheon, held on May 23 at La Colombe d’Or Mansion. Making the presentation was award sponsor Jeanne Sims of Minuteman Press Post Oak and friend Debi Stavis. 

A canine behavior specialist and veterinary technician, Kegarise is the creator of the BAK-PAK (Books and Kids, Power and Knowledge) Critters Reading Program, which uses trained therapy animals, primarily dogs, to help children improve their reading skills. 

She was nominated for the Gutsy Gal Award by her friend, Sally Jozwiak, who said, “Mary has put her passion for animal behavior and training to one of the best uses I can think of: making someone feel special. The dogs are heroes, too. Trained to assist children in improving reading skills, they behave counter intuitively to what a dog is supposed to do — run around, bark and chase things. With Mary’s guidance and teaching, the dogs that go through her program love to listen to kids read. Thousands of children have learned to enjoy reading, and their self esteem has vastly improved. They have learned to accomplish a seemingly impos- sible goal and, perhaps, had their lives changed by Mary’s vision of teaching a dog to read.”  

Kegarise’s love for both animals and reading were fostered when she was young. 

“Three things I learned from my mother were my faith in God, my love for animals and my love of reading,” she said.

Kegarise started working at a vet clinic when she was young and found she had a natural talent for working with animals. As an adult, when she decided to turn working with animals from her hobby to her career, she got formal training and received a certificate in solving canine behavior problems from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Shortly afterwards, she began exploring animal assisted therapy with her own collie. She became certified and found a local group to visit. Through this experience, she realized it was important work, not only for the patients she and her dog saw, but also for the dogs.  

“I realized these dogs could have a higher calling,” she said. “They could be taught to do things that would solicit responses from patients. They could interact with patients, even do physical therapy with patients,” Kegarise said.

In 2004, Kegarise’s pastor at Oaks Presbyterian Church solicited ministry ideas from the congregation, empowering them to work in ministry areas they were passionate about. She took an idea for animal assisted therapy ministry to him, in hopes of sharing a dog’s unconditional love. Critters for Christ was birthed from that effort. She and her small team of handlers and therapy animals visited primarily at a nursing home. While serving in this capacity, at a dog show event in 2009, a preschool director noticed Kegarise and her collie. She told Kegarise about a program in her schools called Celebrity Readers -  local celebrities would come in and read to the students once a month. The director suggested Kegarise be a celebrity reader with her dog. 

“I realized what she meant was she wanted me to read and the dog just to be there,” Kegarise said. “I thought wait a minute: this dog can be taught to do anything. I’m going to teach him how to read. And, I did.” 

BAK-PAK critters are taught to interact directly with the child and alert to the book. Kegarise said this is different than the way the animals react to the human voice. The dogs are taught to look at the book, then at the child, then back at the book. They will gently nudge the child or put their foot on the page if a child gets stuck as they read aloud. She also has taught the dogs to alert to the word “backpack.”

When children come in and sit down, the handler will say, “Fluffy’s really excited to see what you have in your backpack,” and the dog will become excited and may even try to stick their head in the backpack. That translates as excitement about the book because what’s in the backpack is the book. That translates the joy of reading.” 

This, she says, is the difference as to how the dogs read with the student as opposed to them just showing up and being friendly.

Some of Kegarise’s objectives are to share and help nurture a love of reading in and improve the reading skills of the students in the program. According to the 2006 Urban Environment Report, 31 percent of Houston’s population is not literate. Eighty-five percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. 

“There are reading specialists and tutors who can teach the children the mechanics of reading, but these dogs can make the joy of reading better than any human ever could.” said Kegarise.

Watching that joy deepen is one of her favorite parts of working with students. Some students are automatically thrilled, and others are shy at first. But, according to Kegarise, their little faces light up the minute the dog lies next to them. Many students grow more confident in their reading skills.

“We’re sitting in chairs right  behind them, and some of them, the first week, we can’t hear them. By the third week, they’re belting it out,” she said. “The fact that the dog looks at them and looks at the book, they realize someone is paying attention to them. Some begin to show interest in using the library and start exploring interests of their own, asking librarians to help them find books on various subjects, wanting to select one to read to their dog.” 

In the fall, the BAK-PAK Critters Reading Program will be operating in 25 area schools, and nearly 300 students will make a new furry friend who will sit beside them patiently as they explore the joy of reading together.

Kim James is a free-lance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.

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