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A reader’s best friend

Therapy dogs help schoolchildren in Townshend

TOWNSHEND—Who knew that therapy dogs can help early-grade kids improve their reading skills?

Apparently, almost everyone, from one shining shore to the other — or at least from the West River to the Great Salt Lake in Utah, where the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program was launched.

A convincing and charming demonstration of the canine/kid reading phenomenon took place last week at the Townshend Public Library, which sponsored the event, Paws for Reading, with the Townshend Elementary School.

The exercise featured Puma, a two-and-a-half-year-old black lab therapy dog and her polymath owner, Pastor Mark Herrick of Marlboro.

Puma and Herrick are not part of R.E.A.D. but have gained training in other programs. 

A perceptive third-grader explained she was a little less than at grade level as far as her reading was concerned. “I know because I hear how the other kids read. And when I mess up with a word my mom usually corrects me. The dog doesn’t really care if I mess up.”

Then how does she know she’s made a mistake?

“I usually go back and recognize it,” she explained. “I’ll do this class again. Maybe I’m a little behind, but I’ll catch up.”

It was a little like having a conversation with Herodotus.

This was the second time around for Puma and some of the Townshend kids, a first for others. Sandy Sperry, a para-educator, was there, as was Jennifer Iolaro-Heidbrink, a counseling intern in a master’s program at Antioch Graduate School in Keene, N.H.

Librarian Karen LaRue was organizing everything, including initiating the program, suggesting books, setting out graham crackers and water for the kids and loving Puma whenever the dog was released from her “I’m-here-to-serve…” mode by some mysterious owner-signal and was allowed to mingle to everyone’s delight.

Puna even managed to get a bite of her owner’s lunch — doubtless a R.E.A.D. no-no, but there it was.

Four or five kids showed up for this Paws for Reading session. They each read once or twice for five or so minutes, either straight to the attentive dog, which sometimes looked back at them or sometimes the kids just read to the world in front of them while Puma glanced around the room.

Sometimes she lifted her head in some meaningful dog way, but only once in the 60-minute-plus session did she get up without permission. She was gently admonished and she returned to her appointed spot.

LaRue reported that at the first session, one little girl was scared of the dog and wouldn’t go near her. Eventually, LaRue said, she got closer and closer to Puma and agreed to read aloud from a distance. Then, pretty soon, she moved closer to the dog and read from the customary distance of about a foot or two.

“I wasn’t scared of her at all anymore,” the girl said this time. And she plans to come back.

Therapy animals are not a new concept, and research into the healing powers of dogs and cats has led to them now being commonly seen around hospitals. Then there are service animals such as dogs and monkeys, and those that demonstrate predictive qualities, especially relating to seizures. And not to forget the inspiring seeing-eye canines that are familiar everywhere.

But there is a difference between service dogs and therapy dogs, say trainers, and reading therapy dogs are different still. 

They receive specific training, can apply to R.E.A.D. for certification training programs, or other local programs such as Paws for Reading.

LaRue found out about Puma and Herrick from Dawn Slade, recreation and activities coordinator at Valley Cares, the residential independent- and assisted-living establishment in Townshend.  Puma visits the assisted living quarters once a week.

Puma was not a reading therapy dog but did receive training from the Monadnock Humane Society in Peterborough and Swanzey, N.H.

Herrick acquired Puma, one of an 18-puppy litter born in Vernon.  It was the 8-year-old mother’s first litter and, Herrick says, almost all of them have been adopted. 

He said Puma was the first non-damaged dog he’d ever owned and he was thoroughly taken with her charms.

Herrick lives in Marlboro and is the pastor of what he calls the multi-denominational, Christian, non-congregant Mountain Ministry. He received his Ph.D from Freedom Bible College in Rogers, Ark.

He’s been a police officer, a guardian ad litem in Windham Family Court, and more recently he suffered a serious logging accident that almost destroyed his left leg.  This has given him disabled status so that he now has time for his therapy-dog work and for his ministry.

“I’m not in a normal sense an evangelist,” he said.  “I believe in free will — you make your own decisions.” And, he says, quoting Proverbs, he thinks, “A soft answer turns away wrath.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #76 (Wednesday, November 17, 2010).

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