“I’ve already seen improvement in some of the kids’ reading,” said Donna Conti, as she waited for another young child to bring their favorite book to read to Sophie, her therapy dog.
Sophie, a friendly English Springer Spaniel certified with Therapy Dogs Inc., has been coming to the Chinn Park Regional Library once a month to allow children between six and 10-years-old to practice reading aloud to her.
Conti said that children find Sophie relaxing to read to. Whether the child already enjoys reading or is intimidated to read aloud, Sophie provides a good listener. "They know a dog is not going to judge them," she said.
The five children who came throughout the hour-long session on Saturday had a range of reading abilities, but Sophie listened with equal attention to each, watching the children and flopping down against their legs once they got settled. Conti encouraged the kids to pet Sophie as they read and sit as close as they were comfortable. She also helped them if they were struggling with a word.
“Stiiiicky peeeople eat their bre… breakfast in their stiiicky seats,” read one young boy who announced to Sophie that he was 7-years-old and 50 pounds.
“You weigh more than Sophie does!” Conti exclaimed. The tyke shied away with a nervous laugh as Sophie went to greet him, so Sophie instinctively backed up and laid down, letting the boy just read. By the time he finished reading he had warmed up and was asking to pet her. Sophie obliged.
Sophie, who is between 6 and 7-years-old, has been a registered therapy dog for about one year, but has been with Conti about two and a half. Sophie had been a “puppy-mill breeder” before she was rescued by the Mid Atlantic English Springer Spaniel Rescue, Conti said. She had little to no interaction with people and no love for four to five years of her life. Now, the spaniel pours her love into children's lives as well as Conti’s.
Conti first took Sophie as a foster situation, caring for her until an adoption home was found. Conti didn’t want another dog at that time, having recently lost her English Springer Spaniel of 17 years and still feeling the loss. “But I think within the first week of having her, everyone knew,” she said.
Now, they take care of each other. Conti used to take her other dog to nursing homes and loved it, but felt she couldn’t repeat that with Sophie. So they work with children, and Conti is hoping to be able to bring Sophie to some school programs as well as libraries.
At one point Sophie got up to stretch and began showing some of her tricks: hive-fives, and bowing. “She did that bow when I first took her,” said Conti. “Bowing down and looking up at you with those pleading eyes saying ‘please keep me!’”
The last readers, two brothers ages 6 and 7, were shy at first, but each flew through several books. “C’mere Sophie,” Wesley, the older, whispered when it was his turn to read. Then, at Conti’s prompting, he gave a louder, “Sophie!” and patted the ground beside him. Sophie was instantly at his side with licks and tail wags. Later he said, “I want her to clean my face again.”
“Even though they were quiet while there, they talked about going to the library all morning, and then about Sophie all evening!” their mom, LaRae Lind said later.
“They were scared of dogs until about a month ago,” Mr. Lind said. He watched with glowing pride as the boys read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Diggers and Dumpers, and finally a book of jokes and riddles while Sophie lounged by their sides.
“What kind of dog doesn’t have a tail? A hot dog.” Wesley didn’t wait for a laugh line, but just kept right on going, his voice gaining strength as he went. “What is louder than a cat in a tree? Two cats in a tree.”
Every child received a little bookmark from Sophie and a Guiding Eyes for the Blind bookmark from the library with tips on how to act around guide dogs.
For information on Sophie’s future visits to the library, or other dog-reading programs, contact the Chinn Park Regional Library. You need to register ahead of time to save your child’s spot. Children will have a similar chance to read to Rover, another therapy dog, this coming Wednesday at 1 p.m. at Chinn.