Therapy dogs content to listen, help kids learn

STAFF PHOTO BY ROB NOVIT Pierce Thompson, a Millbrook Elementary School student, reads to therapy dog Luke – as part of a popular Paws in Reading project through the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare. Luke seemed to enjoy the story, and Pierce could improve his skills in a fun way.

Luke, a Portuguese water dog, couldn’t wait to arrive at Millbrook Elementary School Monday to meet the kids for a reading session.

He was joined by his owner, Mary Farrow, who arranged for Luke to become a registered therapy dog.

A few minutes later, fifth-grader Christian Reeves made himself comfortable on the floor with the new children’s book, “Scream World,” and began to read it to Luke. For Christian and other students that morning, Luke would appear to be reading it with them.

“I like the dogs, and I like to read,” Christian said.

For six or seven years, the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare has sponsored Paws for Reading – starting at the Aiken County Public Library during the summer and for the last three years, adding Millbrook to the project.

The volunteers come through the SPCA, and some are also active with another program, Pet Therapy, taking their dogs to assisted living facilities and nursing homes.

“The kids really enjoy having the dogs come,” said media specialist Michelle Goings. “They get to have someone to read to who is not a peer. The dogs are non-judgmental. It’s a fun time, and it improves the kids’ reading skills, whether they know it or not.”

Chrissey Miller, the SPCA development director, said her son, Blair Sims, was struggling with some reading difficulties in the second grade at Millbrook about four years ago.

When a teacher friend mentioned the idea of her son reading to a dog, “I thought that was silly,” Miller said. “But my friend said that I probably looked over his shoulder to help him when he was reading. I realized he needed to develop his skills on his own.”

When Miller introduced the concept to Millbrook teachers and administrators, she brought Blair with her and let him describe his own experience.

“It was a lot of fun, better than reading to people,” he said Monday. “It doesn’t bring as much stress when there’s a word you miss.”

Blair is now a sixth-grader at Kennedy Middle School and is doing very well.

As for Luke, he visits a number of venues to bring out his cheerful personality. Farrow enjoys all the opportunities, but there’s something special about the children.

“All of us are doing God’s work, visiting the school and bringing the dogs the kids love,” she said. “It’s a chance for me also to make friends.”

Joanne Minnick heads the Pet Therapy program and volunteers for Paws for Reading with her English setter.

Her dog, Katie, has had some health issues and doesn’t venture out as much, “but she loves to come out for this,” Minnick said. “She’s very peaceful and quiet and loves the kids.”