Each child waits patiently; eager to open a book they’ve chosen to read to a therapy dog, who is there to provide a positive presence, and a non-judgmental reading environment. With a inquisitive head tilt, and a wag of the tail, therapy dogs calm the liveliness of children animated with curiosity, and exuberating adventurous energy.
As a trained therapy dog, Gus, a Saint Bernard and Bernese mountain dog mix, helps mitigate the stress of children new to reading. Gus is a 170-pound newcomer to the PAWS program after completing certification three months ago. His first task, maintaining the attention of more than 15 children at the Liverpool Public Library’s PAWS to Read program, a monthly program that encourages healthy reading habits, and cultivates a motivation for learning.
“I think it’s great for kids,” says Amy Dumas, Gus’ owner. “They know instinctively when someone needs love and attention. Sometimes that’s all a child needs to make them comfortable.”
The concept of the program is simple; children read to dogs. Additionally, the program aims to create an enjoyable atmosphere, and help with emotional and social skills. Dumas states that the children don’t face criticism for mistakes by reading to a therapy dog.
“Amy and her therapy dog Gus, along with Eric and his therapy dog Cody, have brought lots of laughs and smiles to the faces of the children at the library,” explains Sarah Mills, a library patron who brought her daughter Lauren to the PAWS to Read event. “Sometimes young children suffer reading anxiety, and lots of fears, but when the kids are busy petting one of these dogs that nervousness goes away.”
In 1998, PAWS started with three volunteers, but has since expanded into the largest nonprofit organization in the region that provides pet-assisted therapy. The dogs in the PAWS program visit hospitals, nursing homes, schools, colleges and universities, airports and veteran centers. Formerly known as Sunshine Friends, PAWS certifies each volunteer service animal through a five-week program. The name was changed to PAWS of CNY in 2013 to describe the expanded role of the organization more accurately, and served as a directive for the organization’s path to accreditation.
Scrappy, a rescued golden retriever, has been a certified therapy dogs for a year and a half. He, and his owner, Kristine Michel, travel to the behavioral health unit at Upstate University Hospital Community Campus every Tuesday evening. Michel says the effects of pet therapy are exceptionally beneficial.
“The psychiatric ward is our favorite visit,” she explains. “On one visit, a patient was dealing with mental issues. His health physician told me he was unmovable from bed for 12 hours, but immediately got out when Scrappy came.”
While Michel usually takes Scrappy to community events when she can, once a month, they also visit the Van Duyn Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Syracuse, New York. Residents, many of whom are veterans, get a few hours to forget past traumas.
“For a minute they’re no longer in a nursing home, they’re just telling the story of the old dog they used to have,” says Michel.
Therapy dogs come in all sizes and breeds, but not every dog is right for the job. Michel already has two golden
retrievers, but met Scrappy when he was 4-years-old, abused, alone and locked in a cage. It was Scrappy, however, who was most receptive to training.
Dumas also volunteers on the board of directors for PAWS. She says the dogs must enjoy human contact, have the right temperament and patience, and be at ease in all situations.
Each member of the board is a volunteer through the program. Along with the other volunteers, they’ve devoted their free time to certify their pets, and take them on visits and events.
“People in the program see volunteering as a passion,” says Kristine Michel. “With the amount of training needed for certification, and the lengthy verification process required to visit schools and hospitals, you have to really love helping others to dedicate so much time.”