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Sit. Stay. Heal.

Christine Stribling (AB ’93) and her team of exceptional dogs reach out to youth at risk.

By Allyson Mann (MA ’92)

In early July, Christine Stribling loaded her dogs, Sam and Duke, into her Jeep Grand Cherokee and headed off to Dacula to work on some programs for Red Fern Farms, a nonprofit organization founded by Stribling (AB ’93). On the way, her Jeep was struck by another car. When the paramedics arrived, they wanted to take Stribling to the hospital to make sure her neck wasn’t broken.

“OK,” said Stribling, “but I need to take the dogs to the vet first.”

As it turned out, Stribling’s mother insisted that her daughter get checked out first. But that statement pretty much sums up Stribling’s priorities in life. Sam and Duke are No. 1 because they’re more than just beloved companions; they’re an integral part of Red Fern Farms and the innovative programs Stribling created to provide animal-assisted therapy to at-risk children in Atlanta area schools.

“Animals and children are such a natural fit,” says Stribling, who has been reaching out to troubled youth by teaching them to train dogs since 1996. “We know we can train dogs to be people’s eyes, ears, and limbs, but I wondered what would happen if children spent a year or two or longer with the dogs.”

She began with a fundraiser at her parents’ home, where she sold Christmas ornaments and gift baskets and raised enough money to adopt Sam, a Newfoundland mix, from the Atlanta Humane Society. Stribling and Sam, who serves as RFF spokesdog, began working with private therapists but soon reached out to more children by cultivating relationships with schools like Harbins Elementary in Dacula, where RFF has been in place for six years.

“Trying to reach different kids takes different strategies,” says Patty Heitmuller (BSEd ’79, MEd ’84, EdD ’91), former Harbins principal and RFF board member. “Over time—and with the help of Christine, the dogs and the teachers—the kids make real progress.”

The program was instrumental in helping fifth-grader Joel Jones Jr. deal with depression after his sister’s accidental death in 2002. His mother, Yvonne, says Joel’s level of self-confidence had dropped and he had withdrawn, refusing to read or participate in activities. It wasn’t until school administrators placed him in a program that included working with RFF that Joel began to turn around. He became highly motivated to work with the dogs and made sure his assignments were completed. Gradually, Joel grew more confident and came out of his shell.

“I have seen with my own eyes what Christine does and how she does it,” says Yvonne. “She knows how to reach children, especially those who may get lost in the system.”

Mandy McGee teaches a class at Harbins for children who have emotional-behavioral disorders. EBD issues include aggression, attention-deficit syndrome, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress syndrome—problems that are sometimes compounded by learning disorders. McGee has witnessed decreased physical aggression, increased empathy toward others and improved memory skills since her students started working with RFF.

“The kids come in angry at the world,” she says. “They feel safe with the dogs—and will tell them things they won’t tell adults.”

McGee also became a RFF foster parent; her dog, Bailey, has been visiting her classroom since the age of eight weeks. “There was a decrease in aggressive behaviors when Bailey was brought in,” she says.

Psychologist Chuck Cancilla, who spends two days a week at Harbins, describes the program as a godsend. “We’ve seen the most difference in the kids they’ve had the most problems with,” he says. “There’s been a decrease in the need for punishment.”

The RFF program includes academic exercises the students complete before working with the dogs. Stribling teaches them the ABCs of dog training—one letter per week—and McGee reinforces the lessons in the classroom. “S” is for shaping, which means using “yes” and “no” to encourage correct behavior. Each lesson with the dogs is applicable to the students’ relationships with people.

“How do teachers shape your behavior?” Stribling asks the students. “They give you grades.”

The training process is demanding. After grooming the dogs (brushing their coats and teeth) and being quizzed on the ABCs, the students begin working them on an agility course that includes going over a broad jump, changing directions and jumping through a tire, running through a tunnel, and then going over a higher jump. It’s a complicated sequence of events. The kids have to remember the commands (“Over! Tire! Tunnel! Over!”) and deliver them to the dogs before arriving at the equipment, all while moving forward. They also have to deal with the varying skill and cooperation levels of the dogs. The timing is difficult, and both the kids and dogs sometimes get frustrated.

But Stribling keeps them focused. She repeats directions and encouragement and orchestrates what would look like chaos to an outsider until a brief shining moment when it all comes together and dog and child perform flawlessly. Then there are smiles and excited high-fives, and the kids want to perform over and over again. Success, which they rarely experience in the academic setting, makes them willing to spend 45 minutes on schoolwork in exchange for 15 minutes of working with the dogs.

Christine Stribling understands this motivation. She’s always had an affinity for dogs and has spent years honing her craft. Her training included a summer studying at the Assistance Dog Institute in Santa Rosa, Calif., under Bonnie Bergin, who invented the concept of the service dog to assist people with mobility impairments. ADI is the premier organization for assistance dog training, founding the only college offering associate degrees in dog studies and conducting groundbreaking research on topics including teaching dogs to read. While there, Stribling had a dog attached to her with a four-foot leash 24 hours a day for two weeks.

After eight years, Stribling has identified another area where dogs can help: improving reading skills. “It’s unbelievable how many children do not read as well as they should,” she says. “Playing video games or watching TV is more enticing to them than reading a book.”

This observation became the basis for the Reading Rovers program, wherein students actually teach dogs to read. Initiated at Harbins last spring, the exercise begins with a student holding up a card with a command written on it—“sit,” for example—while simultaneously giving the command aloud. The student repeats the exercise until the dog recognizes “sit” on the card without hearing it pronounced—and obeys the command. Once mastered, the student and his canine pupil move on to another word.

Christian Conover, 10, works with Clarence, a retriever mix who successfully performs “sit,” “down,” and then “sit” again. When “paw” is added, Clarence offers his paw to Christian—but “closer” proves frustrating. Stribling offers encouragement by ruffling Clarence’s fur and talking to him in an animated voice. She then monitors the pair closely to make sure they finish on a good note, with Clarence correctly moving closer to Christian.

Before students work with the dogs, Stribling reviews their assignments, which are based on academic performance standards set by Gwinnett County. The students were instructed to write a story for a book named Carl’s Christmas, which has illustrations but no text. “Oh, this is really good, Reginald!” says Stribling, who discusses errors she finds in students’ writing—a persistent one is “naked sentences” (no punctuation)—and encourages them to use descriptive words. One student who hasn’t completed his assignments gets sent back to class. “You can’t work with the dogs today,” says Stribling. “You have got to do all your work.”

Leslie Conover says Christian became more independent after he started working with the dogs. “The first day of the program he came home and said, ‘Mom, I’m going to have homework every night for the rest of the year,’ ” she says. “It was a ton of extra work, but he didn’t seem to mind.”

Teaching dogs to read is remarkable. But what’s more impressive is that these students, whose reading skills tested low, are doing the required reading and are also retaining what they learn. They eagerly explain how a dog’s vision works, how dogs learn, and why they sometimes eat grass—all things they’ve learned through Reading Rovers.

Stribling is reviewing the data collected through RR; she hopes to work with Purdue University researchers to develop a method to quantify the effects of the program. This spring, she was nominated for the United Way Women’s Legacy Award for Gwinnett County. Although she didn’t win, she has plenty of fans like Priscilla Camarena, 11, who keeps in touch via email.

“I forgot to tell you my dog lost a tooth while he was playing,” wrote Priscilla. “Thanks to you and the puppy kit, I know that it is common [for them to] swallow their teeth when they come out. I’ve been teaching my dog sit, down, stay, and come. But no dog is better than Sam or any of the program’s dogs.”

Priscilla, who plans to become a veterinarian, says Red Fern Farms has taught her how to behave in class and how to listen. For Stribling, that’s the best reward possible.

“I truly believe every child has a gift, and you just have to find the key to unlock it. The dogs are an entry point—they help me find that key.”

For more information on Stribling’s programs, visit

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photos by Dot Paul

Click on image to enlarge

Stribling and a student teach Sam, a Newfoundland mix, how to read.

Gozo, a Labrador retriever mix, reads the card held by a student and correctly performs the “down” command without hearing it spoken.

Stribling reviews a writing assignment with students in the Reading Rovers program. Students who don’t complete assignments are not allowed to work with the dogs—which motivates them to work harder on academics.

Using a complicated set of commands, a student in the Red Fern Farms program takes Duke, a Labrador retriever mix, through an agility course. Duke is one of 12 dogs—all hand picked by Stribling—on the RFF team. Ten of the dogs live with foster families; two live with teachers from Harbins Elementary School in Dacula.