[Home Page] [This Week] [Classifieds] [Legals] [Obituaries] [Newsstands] [Subscriptions] [Advertising] [Deadlines] [About Us] [FAQ] [Archives] [Community Links] [Contact Us]

Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 3, 2008

Miss Siggy listens: Pine Bush students go to the dog...
Miss Siggy speaks: She teaches the Golden (Doodle) Rule

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Catherine Ricchetti believes in teaching kindness, and she has a dog that helps her do that.

A social worker at Pine Bush Elementary School, Ricchetti says, "We need to model kindness and gentleness in the lives of children. Children recognize the unconditional love of a dog. They just feel it. The world is so full of hard things, sometimes you just need a friend. Miss Siggy fills that role."

Miss Siggy, whose full name is Lily Sigmund — after Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology — has received hundreds of letters from Pine Bush students since she started working at the school as a therapy and service dog in 2004.

Some of the most heartfelt letters and their no-nonsense answers, from the "Goldendoodle Extraordinaire," have been compiled into a book, Miss Siggy Speaks.

"It’s like Dear Abby for kids," said Ricchetti.

One fourth-grader, for example, writes about two friends who leave him out of some activities. "That really hurts my feelings," he writes Miss Siggy. "I still want to be friends with them, but I don’t know what to do about it."

"Many months ago," replies Miss Siggy. "I had a similar problem with two beagle puppy friends of mine. They would play fetch with me out in the backyard, but then they would go chase squirrels and wouldn’t invite me. I was very hurt.

"So finally I told them how upset I was, and they apologized for leaving me out. Now we all chase squirrels together...."

A third-grader writes about getting bullied on the school bus and he is afraid it will get worse if he speaks up.

"My mother was a very proper French poodle who always taught us puppies the Golden Doodle Rule: Treat others as you would have them treat you," Miss Siggy answers. "If these kids continue to bully you, you should talk to your parents, your teacher, your principal, your school counselor, or your bus driver immediately...."

A girl writes about her divorced parents sending nasty messages to each other through her.

"Children in a divorce should not communicate for their parents," writes Miss Sigmund. "The adults need to speak directly. I want you to tell your parents that you don’t want to deliver messages, or, better yet, show them this letter. Your folks need to know that they have put you in an awkward position. I’m sure they will fix it once they understand. You need to be a kid, and they need to be the adults...."

A fifth-grader writes that friends asked if he wanted to smoke and, when he said no, "They called me a chicken."

"You were right to say no," replies Miss Siggy. "You are a brave kid. Smoking makes this dog pinch her nose. It’s a stinky, dirty habit that is terrible for your health....

"My boxer-buddy Bowser used to rummage through rotten garbage. (YUK! Pee-yoo!) He asked me to join in. I barked in protest and asked him to come dig holes in my yard instead. Digging holes is dirty work, too, but it’s fun and healthy!"

"My skin is cocoa-brown," writes another student. "My mom says it is beautiful, like chocolate milk. A kid at school said my skin is dirty looking. I don’t feel beautiful like my mom says I am anymore. What can I do"’

"I have spoken to your principal," replies Miss Siggy. "Behavior like this is not tolerated in school. The adults will help.

"Your letter made me so sad, I cried. I get biting mad when I hear mean, ignorant comments about race. They are so hurtful. I have been called a ‘yuppie-puppy’ and a ‘mixed-breed’ all because I am half golden retriever and half standard poodle! I know in my heart I am a great dog, and I am proud to be a Goldendoodle!

"I am sorry that you were hurt, my beautiful friend. Remember, kindness matters. Be kind to yourself! Smart kids and dogs never believe ignorant comments."

Rich journey

When Ricchetti was a kid, growing up in Merrick, Long Island, she had a dog that was a lot like Miss Siggy — a standard poodle named Tug.

"I just loved that dog," she said. "He was so gentle. He would know when I was angry or sad...He sat near me and gave me his paw."

Tug was a good hunter — he had to be kept away from chickens — and he was amenable to being dressed up. "He was really sweet, and very protective of me," said Ricchetti.

She also kept a journal as a kid and believes in the healing power of writing about emotions. The fifth of six siblings, she had plenty to write about. Her father was a pressman for The New York Times and her mother, a homemaker. Her parents marked a half-century as a couple this spring.

Those two important aspects of her childhood — loving a gentle dog and writing to solve problems — come to fruition in Ricchetti’s book. In between was a rich, decades-long journey.

At 42, Ricchetti has been a social worker for 20 years. She came to her profession "by accident," she said.

After graduating from the State University of New York College at Oneonta, she entered the world of finance, working for a firm on Wall Street. She was 21 when one of the brokers suddenly died. "I was watching the chaos in the office and all the competition for his accounts," she said. "These were people I had liked and I remembered thinking I would become one of them."

Abandoning her original career plans, Ricchetti said, "I had no idea what to do."

So she spent the summer bicycling across the country to California — an odyssey she described as "life-altering, fun, and really exciting."

Upon her return, her sister in the Albany area asked Ricchetti to live with her and her husband, rent-free, while she figured out what to do next. Her sister, who worked in the field of mental health, helped Ricchetti get a job at a youth shelter, working with runaway and homeless kids.

"I just fell in love with it," Ricchetti said of the demanding work. "In the finance world, you got a fast high; this was more of a steady love."

She next got a job with the Albany City Police as the first counselor in the juvenile unit, running programs for kids in trouble with the law. "I worked with their families, I worked on behavior plans, and I worked on getting them involved in other stuff," recalled Ricchetti.

She returned to school to earn a master’s degree in social work from the University at Albany and then she went on be a social worker for Hospice at St. Peter’s. "That’s probably where I learned the most about gentleness and compassion," said Ricchetti. "I learned how to help people who are really afraid."

It’s also where she first saw dogs at work, comforting people. "I watched their quieting effect," she said. "People need a lot of tenderness," she said, as they face death. And the therapy dogs that visited, primarily lapdogs, were "very sweet when someone’s so afraid," she said.

A few years of Hospice work left Ricchetti feeling burned out, she said, so she switched to working with students. She landed a job at Farnsworth Middle School, which she loved. "It had a lot more hope in it," Ricchetti said of the work.

She didn’t have a dog at the time but found herself urging friends who did to use them as therapy dogs. "When we do that, we’re probably talking to ourselves," she said.

Ricchetti put plans to get a therapy dog on hold at that point as she took a maternity leave. She and her husband, Matthew, had a daughter — Amelia. The couple had met on a blind date. Matthew is a computer programmer who works from home and plays bagpipes in the Albany Police Band.

"He lived in Russia and is fluent in many languages," said Ricchetti. "To him, music and computers are another language."

Ricchetti came back from her leave to work at Pine Bush Elementary School. She said the principal there, Martha Beck, was very supportive of having a therapy dog at the school.

Amelia is now 7 and "definitely buddies" with Miss Siggy, said her mother. She’s "very good" about sharing her dog with a school full of kids, said Ricchetti.

It was Amelia who came up with the name "Lily" for the dog. Ricchetti didn’t want to use a name that a child at Pine Bush might have. So, as she discussed the matter around a campfire, naming those who had shaped psychiatry, her brother-in-law suggested Sigmund. Since the puppy was a female, Sigmund became her last name and Lily her first.

Miracles and victories

Ricchetti got approval from the school board and superintendent in October of 2003 to have a dog at Pine Bush Elementary, and the next month submitted grants to help pay for the puppy.

She estimated the total initial cost at $2,867. This included $1,000 for the dog itself as well as funds for training, food, veterinary expenses, and grooming. Ricchetti got a $500 Heart’s Desire grant from the Guilderland Teachers’ Association. (She now assumes all expenses for the dog herself, considering Miss Sigmund to be a family pet.)

Ricchetti researched many different breeds before settling on a Goldendoodle. She wanted an even-tempered dog that would appeal to a wide variety of kids and be big enough for them to play with, without causing allergies.

"I though Siggy’s cuteness actually mattered," said Ricchetti on why she rejected Labradoodles, bred in Australia, who can have mangy coats. "She’s just so darned cute," Ricchetti said of her shaggy blonde dog, who has been compared to Orphan Annie’s Sandy.

Ricchetti wrote to many different breeders — even putting a deposit down for a dog from a Virginia breeder she later rejected — before she found a highly-regarded breeder of Goldendoodles in New Jersey.

"Martha Beck and I drove down on a day off," Ricchetti recalled, to see the puppy the breeder had selected. "She was nine pounds, just a doll."

Ricchetti worked with a trainer even before buying the dog and started general obedience classes that first summer. The puppy, at 13 weeks old, was taken to school for the first time in September of 2004 as training continued.

Pine Bush parents were informed about the dog in a letter and teachers went over rules with their classes.

"We asked all the kids to become dog trainers," said Ricchetti. "We told them how Miss Siggy had to pass a test and they could help. The dog trainer helped me understand the dog could become pushy. The kids had to be in charge."

The kids were taught to ignore the dog if she misbehaved. "Watching a whole room of kids with their noses in the air and their arms crossed over their chests was something," said Ricchetti.

Miss Siggy was featured on the cover of New York Teacher Magazine and Ricchetti received so many inquiries from schools across the state, wanting details on the program, she decided to write her first book — Dogs in School: Creating a Dog Program in Your School. (That book costs $16.95. Like Miss Siggy Speaks, which costs, $12.95, it was printed by Goldendoodle Publications. Both books are for sale locally at the Book House in Stuyvesant Plaza, and on-line at Amazon or through Ricchetti’s website — goldendoodlepublications.com.)

In Dogs in School, Ricchetti sites current brain research and says a dog can increase a child’s ability to learn by helping the student to manage stress, anxiety, and depression.

Nothing prepared her, though, for what she calls the "miraculous."

"You read the research and do your homework, but to witness it," she says, her voice trailing off, as, uncharacteristically she searches for words. "The first time it happened, the teacher and I kept looking at each other...." She relates the unfolding events in her book.

On the third or fourth day of the new school year, Ricchetti was called to a classroom to deal with a 7-year-old boy who might have to be restrained. He was new to Pine Bush in a self-contained special-education program and had severely delayed language skills. He had been throwing a temper tantrum for about three-quarters of an hour, throwing things, kicking the wall, crying, and screaming.

Miss Sigmund was just six months old and had never been called to intervene in a crisis before.

Ricchetti, realizing that 7-year-olds often see animals as their peers, said to the boy, "Miss Sigmund heard you crying. She was worried, and she asked if we could come help."

The boy was hiding behind a table, distraught and frightened, his face wet with tears. He stopped crying right away and watched the dog intently. Ricchetti began to talk about the dog and said Miss Sigmund was looking for new friends. Within five minutes, the boy tentatively touched her as she wagged her tail. He smiled and shyly petted her.

Ricchetti asked if the boy would like to help Miss Siggy make new friends in his classroom and he nodded. Ricchetti and the teacher were both shocked, she said, at how fast the dog intervention had worked. Now, when the boy gets upset, he goes to Ricchetti’s office to play with the dog and was not restrained during the whole school year.

Kids at the other end of the behavior spectrum have benefited, too.

Very shy kids often "missed by our radar because they are typically very well behaved," said Ricchetti, are also helped by Miss Siggy.

"One of my favorite things is being able to really reach shy kids, and kids who aren’t assertive," said Ricchetti. She works with them on assertiveness under the guise of training Miss Siggy. In order to train the dog, they have to use assertive body language and strong voices.

"Some of these kids are trying so hard to please their peers, they’ll get sucked into things," said Ricchetti. "I use Siggy as a tool."

A group of first-graders who were shy, for example, used their lunch time to work with Miss Siggy and teach her to jump through a hoop. "It took them three-quarters of a year...It was a real victory. They didn’t know what they were learning — to stand tall. You have to talk to Siggy as if you were a queen or a king. Miss Siggy is always the subject. It’s very playful...until they get the body language of what authority looks like."

That authority then carries over into their everyday lives. While teaching a dog new tricks, they have also taught themselves.

"Like a journal that writes back"

Because Miss Sigmund seemed a natural confidante for students, "I suddenly had this idea, she could write letters," said Ricchetti. "Writing has always been fun for me."

She went on, "Brain research shows writing about difficult emotions helps heal them." Ricchetti gives out lots of journals to students.

Miss Siggy’s letter-writing was refined by Warren Raboy, Richetti’s intern in 2004-05 who is also a playwright. "He said she needs to have a character," Richetti recalled and he helped develop one.

Pine Bush students may submit letters to a mailbox at their school. Not all the letters are published, but every one is answered, said Ricchetti. An announcement with a song written by Michelle Bintz, "Miss Siggy Speak," is played on the public address system to let the school know new answers are posted.

"Some of the letters I don’t expect," said Ricchetti. "Guilderland has mostly intact family and most of the students do really well."

Yet, like children everywhere, they face the difficulties that come with growing up and defining themselves.

"I got a letter a few weeks ago from a little girl saying, ‘I have no friends,’" said Ricchetti. The letters are signed and sometimes she goes to the student’s parents or teacher with a problem or refers the child to a program for help.

But it’s important to realize, she said, that "kids live in the moment." A half-an-hour after writing something intense, they’ve gotten it out of their system. "When it’s over for them, it’s over," she said. "Adults hold it a lot longer."

Miss Siggy’s letters, Ricchetti said, are a great resource for teachers, parents, and social workers.

"I have a couple hundred of her laminated letters in my office," she said. "If you want to talk about something difficult, Miss Siggy is a great way to get the conversation started."

When bad things happen or children have fears, said Ricchetti, "They can go underground." When a child writes to Miss Sigmund, she said, "I see it as a healthy outlet. It’s something you monitor. Writing is a great way to cope with difficult emotions...I always had a journal as a kid. This is like a journal that writes back."

Two file for McNulty’s seat — so far

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALBANY COUNTY— Having been sworn in to his post on the Guilderland town board today, Warren Redlich is now weighing the possibility of a run for Congress.

The only other candidate to have officially filed for the 21st Congressional District race is Democrat Phillip Steck, an Albany County legislator.

Redlich, a Republican, announced his run for the United States House of Representatives in December, but said yesterday that he’s just exploring the idea.

Unlike his previous runs, once in 2004 and again in 2006, Redlich wouldn’t face 10-term incumbent Democrat Michael McNulty on Election Day; the Green Island native announced in October that he won’t seek re-election. McNulty, 62, who suffered from polio at the age of 2, cited minor health problems in his announcement, but said, "The main reason for making this decision now, is that I want to come home."

As a whole, the 21st District is largely Democratic, but Colonie, an area that Steck partially represents in the county legislature, has historically been heavily Republican. In the last election, though, Democrats took a majority on the town board and the supervisor’s seat there, not unlike a shift seen in Guilderland and Bethlehem in recent years.

So, given that he was elected there and serves as the Colonie Democratic Committee chair, Steck said, "I think I would be a very hard Democratic candidate to beat." He expects competition for the Democratic line.

"I would have expected, by now, they would have put up a candidate," Redlich said of his party. "If a good candidate comes along, I’ll probably step aside." He named state Assemblyman James Tedisco, the minority leader, as an example, explaining that Tedisco can offer name recognition and the ability to raise money.

Before his first run for the 21st Congressional seat in 2004, Redlich said that he didn’t expect to win, but hoped to build a name for himself around the district, which includes Albany, Schenectady, Montgomery, and Schoharie counties, as well as parts of Fulton, Rensselaer, and Saratoga counties. McNulty beat Redlich with 70 percent of the vote in 2004 and 80 percent in 2006.

"I don’t want to see the Republican Party wait until July and then nominate someone as an afterthought," Redlich said yesterday. There was nobody qualified to answer questions at the state’s Republican Committee headquarters yesterday afternoon.

Redlich expects to know if he will run for the seat by April, he said, and he hopes to have raised $100,000 by the end of March. A staunch supporter of Ron Paul, the presidential candidate who has used the Internet to raise record amounts of money, Redlich has joined a website called Paulcongress.com in an effort to seek out campaign contributions from Paul supporters.

"Anybody who supports Ron Paul should have an interest in me," Redlich said, concluding that, if he is able to get a quarter of Paul’s supporters to donate a quarter of what they donated to Paul, he’ll easily be able to meet his goal.

It costs a lot more money to run a campaign of this size as compared to the race for town board that he just won, Redlich said. At one point, he estimated that advertising could cost as much as $250,000 to get his message out, "which, by the way, is, ‘Stop wasting money,’" he said.

In that vein, he said, the United States needs to take its troops out of foreign countries — not just Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, but out of Europe, Japan, and South Korea, too. The country needs to refocus on securing its borders, he said.

Steck, a lawyer, who is focusing his campaign around the message, "Grassroots to global issues," also said that the United States needs to reduce its number of foreign bases. His number-one issue is ending the war in Iraq, he said, but larger than that, "We need a real change in foreign policy."

Second, he said, health care must be made more affordable and available to every citizen — he envisions a system similar to Medicare.

Redlich, also a lawyer, is dismissive of government-run projects. "The government doesn’t have the incentive," he said when explaining a light-rail system he’d like to see in the area. It could run along the interstate right-of-way and the developer could be given permissive zoning rights. Instead of encouraging sprawl to extend along roads, it would follow the mass-transit rail.

"It’s one of those things a congressman can do that other people can’t," Redlich said. Right now, though, he said, "I am focused on Guilderland."

[Return to Home Page]