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McCall Hoyle: Kids, Books, and Dog-Magic (Social-Emotional Health)



Emily Dickinson said, “Dogs are better than humans because they know but do not tell.” Of course, I agree. Some of my best friends have been dogs. I have never met a human, or any other creature for that matter, that encompasses such a perfect blend of childlike innocence and the capacity for such unconditional love.



As a sensitive kid, who wore her emotions on her sleeve and struggled with body image issues, dogs, and cats, and horses—but especially dogs—were always my safe haven, the place I could let my guard down and be completely myself. As a girl growing up in the South in the 1980’s, I often felt like I had to smile and nod, and say please and thank you, and speak up—but not too much—and make good grades, and wear the right clothes, and on and on and on. The people-pleaser in me felt I needed to earn the love and acceptance of others. The fear of mistakes paralyzed me. If I am being completely honest, it still

does, although thankfully not quite to the same extent it did when I was thirteen.


But Willie, our Dachshund, and Scruffy, our German Shepherd mix, loved me despite my clumsy attempt at sports, my sloppy clothes, and my adolescent awkwardness. They just loved me. They never expected anything from me emotionally that I could not or did not want to give. And as an educator, I have seen a wide variety of dogs do the same for an even wider variety of children. Petting a dog has long been known to release feel-good hormones and to lower blood pressure, but the “magic” of dogs goes far beyond physical well-being. One of my former students with cerebral palsy explained it beautifully. When I asked her how her service dog improved her life, she didn’t mention any of the physical conveniences or benefits of her canine partner. She mentioned the social ones. I will never forget her eleven-year-old explanation. She said, “When Gara is with me, people pay attention to me. They see me.”



Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with a teacher of exceptional students at my school about one of her students with severe intellectual challenges. One of the boy’s educational goals is to greet others using a two-word greeting. The boy does not use his own name, the names of his teachers, or even those of his family members. Ever. But when he enters the building every day and walks past the social studies teacher’s room with Jack the therapy dog, the boy uses the two-word greeting, “Hi, Jack!” The teacher can’t explain the boy’s usage of the two-word greeting when speaking to Jack, but she says it gives her chills.


The almost magical effects of dogs on humans and especially children is why I believe children’s literature is full of dogs and other animal POVs. I think this dog-magic, for lack of a better descriptor, is also a big part of the reason I so enjoy writing from a dog’s point of view. Each of my Best Friend Dog Tales Books, including Millie, which releases today, is an emotionally driven story that includes topics like grief, trauma, and mental health issues, and each is narrated by a canine protagonist.




Little Millie is a dog living on the streets after being abused and neglected as a puppy. Her story is one of learning to move toward others and trust, and the person who helps her do this is an intelligent, sensitive young girl who struggles with reading and who also lives in kinship care because of her mother’s substance abuse issues. Gus, in Just Gus, was loosely inspired by a boy at my school who struggled with social anxiety issues and was selectively mute. My life was forever changed when I first heard this student whispering to my golden retriever, Apple. And Stella, who is a dog struggling with post traumatic issues, was inspired by the traumatic and unexpected loss of my own father.


Writing about these serious issues through the eyes and ears and especially the nose of a dog allows me to be completely honest and to avoid some of my own preconceived notions and human judgements about myself and others. I think reading books narrated from a dog’s point of view also allows kids the opportunity to practice empathy through the senses of a different species—a species that Emily Dickinson says is in some ways superhuman.



Of course, a dog is a huge responsibility and not one to be taken likely. Some people suffer with allergies, and others are afraid of dogs. But in many situations a friendly, house-trained dog can almost magically mitigate some of the stresses of a variety of mental and physical health issues. And we could all learn a thing or two from the seemingly limitless and innate empathy of dogs. The world would probably be a kinder, gentler place too. And who doesn’t want that?



 


McCall Hoyle is a best-selling author, a reading teacher, and a former school librarian. When she grows up, she’d also like to be a professional dog trainer. She writes hopeful, heartfelt books for kids of all ages and believes one of the best ways to spread hope and share her heart is by writing about the special bond between dogs and their humans.

When McCall isn’t writing, teaching, or spending time with her family, you can find her with

one of her four-legged friends training for agility, obedience, or dock diving in the foothills of

the North Georgia Mountains she calls home. You can learn more about her at mccallhoyle.com.

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