2016-07-08 / Front Page

Therapy dog is one for the books

Gracie has a way with young readers at Scarborough Public Library
By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

The dog days of summer will take on a whole new meaning when the Scarborough Public Library launches a dog therapy program to help improve literacy skills of children.

This month the library will offer three Reading Therapy Dog Sessions with Gracie, a golden retriever therapy dog owned by Pat Touri, an Old Orchard Beach resident. Gracie is trained to sit and listen to reluctant readers. Sessions, which will last 15 minutes, are offered on Fridays July 15, July 22 and July 29 from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. A fourth session will be offered on Friday, Aug. 5.

Touri and Gracie, who was certified as a therapy dog in July 2012, have visited the library for story times over the last few years and have also offered therapy services at the Morrison Center, a facility on Chamberlain Road in Scarborough that provides support services for adult and children with disabilities.

Scarborough Library Youth Services Librarian Louise Capizzo said this is the first time the library has offered reading therapy with a dog. She said the municipal libraries in Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth offer similar programs that remain popular.

Gracie, a golden retriever, will be visiting the Scarborough Public Library this summer to help reluctant readers gain confidence in their literacy level through private reading sessions between the readers and Gracie. (Courtesy photo) Gracie, a golden retriever, will be visiting the Scarborough Public Library this summer to help reluctant readers gain confidence in their literacy level through private reading sessions between the readers and Gracie. (Courtesy photo) “It has actually made a big difference for kids who are having reading difficulty,” said Rachel Davis, children’s librarian at Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth. “It provides an incentive. Kids love the idea of reading with a dog. It is a good motivator.”

This is the fourth year the library has offered the program, which is year-round and takes place on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons during the school year and Wednesday and Thursday afternoons in the summer. The program started with Winston, a golden retriever, and three years ago expanded to include Maddie, a black Labrador retriever.

Davis said since the library opened in its new building in February, the dogs have been booked solid.

Will Brown, children’s librarian at Falmouth Memorial Library, said he has heard from parents and kids who have benefited from having a dog available to read to. The library has two dogs available, Deagan, a gentle Great Dane, and an American poodle that just started coming to the library. The program has been offered for the last few years and, like in Cape Elizabeth, is available year-round.

“Shortly after we started it, a mother with two little ones said she was thrilled about the program because it had got her kids to practice reading at home,” Brown said. “They got bored reading be themselves and reading with a parent can be intimidating. A dog was a nice happy medium. They didn’t feel judged or pressured.”

The Canine Reading Buddy program, he said, is available either individually or in small groups.

“It’s great to see the kids have that experience with the dog. It’s rewarding and nice to see them grow like that,” Brown said.

The dogs that come in to the library to listen to kids read, Capizzo said, are specifically trained for the task.

“They are trained to offer support and be there for the children while they are reading,” she said.

Davis said it is common for Winston and Maddie to snuggle right up with the kids while they are reading.

According to Reading Education Assistance Dogs, a program Intermountain Therapy Animals in Salt Lake City in Utah started in 1999, “animals are ideal reading companions because they help increase relaxation and lower blood pressure; listen attentively; do not laugh, judge or criticize; allow children to proceed at their own pace and are less intimidating than peers.”

The sessions will take place behind a screen next to the window seat in the youth services section of the library to offer a sense of privacy.

“It’s a way to help a reluctant reader. Instead of sitting in front of a tutor or a parent, they can sit with a dog,” Capizzo said.

If the program proves to be successful, Capizzo said the library will try to offer it “more regularly during the school year.”

Scarborough Public Library is not the only local institution that sees the calming nature of therapy dogs. Hospice of Southern Maine, which operates the 18-bed Gosnell Memorial Hospice House, started a dog therapy program for patients and their families in response, according to a press release “to studies showing that cuddling or petting a dog can achieve health benefits.”

The program will also “provide comfort and socialization for patients struggling with isolation or loneliness.”

“Hospice care is all about making the most of the time we have when dealing with end of life,” Hospice of Southern Maine CEO Daryl Cady said in the release. “For our patients at Gosnell, connecting with trained therapy dogs can help normalize and reduce the anxiety of being away from home.”

Kristin Melville, director of development and outreach at Hospice of Southern Maine, said the program, dubbed Paw Prints, started in mid-June when Sophie, a lab mix and her handler Nan Butterfield visited Gosnell.

“She certainly knows very well the needs our patients have at the end of life and really wanted to be part of the program,” Melville said of Butterfield, a longtime Hospice of Southern Maine volunteer, whose partner died at Gosnell last year.

Melville said Sophie who is “not easily distracted and is well behaved,” was a hit at Gosnell.

“It was a really warm welcome for the patients and visitors,” Melville said. “This is also good for our staff because it is so positive and heart warming and a great way to alleviate stress and help bring smiles to people’s faces and bring joy and comfort.

Before they are accepted into the Paw Prints program, each team has to go through 40 house of training geared to hospice care and make site visits. Each dog has to be certified as a therapy dog and pass a canine good citizenship test.

Two other dog/volunteer teams are working through the training program. The program, Melville said, could expand to home-based and nursing home hospice care.

Once approved, the dogs, according to the release must “adhere to rigorous visitation procedures while on premise to ensure the safety and comfort of all patients, visitors and staff.

Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at news@scarboroughleader.com.

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