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Therapy dogs help kids get comfortable with reading

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By Shaina Stockton and Christopher Brooke, Staff

HILLSVILLE — Willa the therapy dog attracted attention with her offer of helping children learn how to read at Carroll County Public Library last Thursday.
Willa, a dainty and quiet doberman, attended by humans Rebecca Gatchel and Sarah Largen, is a very important participant in the Paws to Read program.

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The process goes something like this: people — not just children — see the dog hanging out in the vicinity of the children’s corner of the library in Hillsville.
They make their way over to show the dog some love.
Then, maybe a child might take up a book to read to Willa.
That’s the way it worked when Ainsley Nottingham, 8, who was in the library anyway, went over to give the dog some petting and a big hug first.
“She loves children,” Gatchel said.
“I think people in the library love to see Willa,” Largen said.
In Galax, the process was very similar. As soon as she got in the door, Hope Creed made her way over to a great pyrenees female named Jordan, a dog that was hard to miss as she stretched her large frame across the cool tiled floor at the library entrance.
Nearby, a small black dog named Sadie put her paws up for more attention.
“Would you like to read to her?” asked Largen. Creed nodded, and the next minute they were settled in a reading nook at the children’s side of the library.
“What kind of books do they like?” Creed had asked, then jokingly picked out a cat book from one of the shelves.
Kids will read to a dog when they wouldn’t to a person, Largen explained. “When the kids read to dogs, it builds their confidence. They might be nervous reading to other kids or adults, but dogs don’t judge.”
The entire process is a fair trade for both parties.
Pet Partners pups (and their people) cooperate to let young people practices their out-loud reading skills in order to build confidence and lessen anxiety they might feel in front of others. In return, they get to enjoy a relaxing story-time, as well as lots of attention and belly rubs.
A certified therapy dog, Willa seems calm beyond her 2.5 years and exhibits a gentle, sniffy curiosity about new people.
The same was true for Jordan and Sadie, their eyes brightening and tails wagging at each passing visitor.
Petting Jordan was a commitment made for the long haul. Once the petting stopped, she would nudge the person’s hand with her nose or paw, begging them to keep going.
Each dog has been through a training program by Pet Partners and had to pass obedience and aptitude tests. Gatchel had to pass a written evaluation to be admitted in the program.
They have participated in numerous events, including Special Olympics, school career days and trips to the nursing home in Independence once a month.
Heather Jenkins, Jordan’s owner, and Sadie’s owner, Stephanie Burnette, explained that they each have several dogs that are involved in the program. “At long events, it’s actually convenient for us to bring multiple dogs. That way, we can switch them out and give others a break,” Burnette said.
They confirmed that new dogs would be introduced through the library’s program as it continued. That way, children will have a chance to meet and read to a more varied audience.

Paws to Read takes place at Galax Public Library Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m. and at Carroll County Public Library Thursdays at 4:30 p.m.