2012-12-28 / Front Page

Reading time

Animal friends help children read
By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer


Brooke Brennan, 6, a first-grade student at Pond Cove Elementary School in Cape Elizabeth, reads a book to Winston. The 3-year-old golden retriever comes to Thomas Memorial Library weekly to help grade school students who are having trouble with literacy to practice and enjoy reading. (Jack Flagler photo) Brooke Brennan, 6, a first-grade student at Pond Cove Elementary School in Cape Elizabeth, reads a book to Winston. The 3-year-old golden retriever comes to Thomas Memorial Library weekly to help grade school students who are having trouble with literacy to practice and enjoy reading. (Jack Flagler photo) CAPE ELIZABETH – In the hallway outside Thomas Memorial Library’s community room, Winston is excited. The 3-year old golden retriever snaps from person to person, soaking up the attention. He rolls over for a quick belly rub from Vernon Smith, an 8-year old second grader at Pond Cove Elementary School, before Winston hops up again and makes the rounds of the room, not wanting to miss any of the action.

Smith is the first child to participate in this afternoon’s “Read to Winston” session, a program at the library in which Cape Elizabeth children, especially those struggling with their literacy, can read to the golden retriever for 15 minutes every Wednesday.


Vernon Smith, 8, said he saw a poster in the library for the “Read to Winston” program. The following week he was back with a stack of books ready to read. (Jack Flagler photo) Vernon Smith, 8, said he saw a poster in the library for the “Read to Winston” program. The following week he was back with a stack of books ready to read. (Jack Flagler photo) “It usually takes him about 30 minutes to calm down,” said Winston’s owner, Barbara Schenkel of Cape Elizabeth.

But when the next student, Brooke Brennan arrives, and sits down on a mat with a book about skiing, Winston plops down next to her, lays his head on Schenkel’s lap, and quietly listens.

Brooke’s mother, Molly Brennan, says she has noticed a difference in her daughter’s reading even in just a few weeks with Winston. The time in the library has made reading enjoyable for Brooke, Molly Brennan said, as a fun way to do most of Brooke’s 20 minutes of daily required reading.

Vernon Smith said he first heard of the program when he was in the library and saw a poster. He was there the next week with a stack of books ready to go.

“It’s been an enormous help,” added Smith’s mother, Lisa Packard (Smith expertly spelled out his mother’s name for this article).

Packard said the program’s benefit has expanded past the 15-minute block of time for her son.

“We prepare and read the books at home because he has to have it ready for Winston,” she said. “We read a lot of books about dogs.”

Schenkel said her main goal is to make reading enjoyable for children. While she hopes the experience can be educational, she’s not there to test them.

“One child said, ‘I like reading to Winston because he doesn’t tell me I said it wrong,’” Schenkel said.

“We want their reading to improve. But more importantly to have them feel comfortable about reading.”

It wasn’t easy for Winston to become a licensed therapy dog. Schenkel said the idea started when she brought him to a Christmas party at Animal Welfare Society in Kennebunk last year. Out of the hundreds of dogs there, she said the animal shelter staff fell in love with hers and told her he would make a great therapy dog.

From there, Schenkel and Winston began meeting with a “tester/observer” from Therapy Dogs Inc., a nationwide organization that has certified more than 12,000 dogs nationwide to help in community hospitals, nursing homes and libraries.

The tester/observer met with Winston, tested him on basic manners and then supervised a visit to a nursing home. She also recommended obedience school, even though Winston was friendly and warm-hearted, he had some work to do. After those classeswere completed, he was ready to head to the library. All in all, the process took about six months. The “Read to Winston” program started in September.

Two months later, the South Portland Public Library started its own therapy dog program for early readers.Deweyisa1andahalfyearoldMaltese therapy dog who belongs to Cynthia McOsker. The pair come to the library once a month for an hour during the “Read to Dewey” program.

“It really helps with (children) to focus, feel more comfortable and at ease,” said South Portland children’s librarian Kim Campbell, who added the programs in South Portland and Cape Elizabeth are two of just a handful in the state.

When Brooke Brennan has finished reading her books to Winston, he trots out into the hallway and the excitement level rises up once again. He jumps up to sniff (or maybe try to consume) a finger puppet she wags in front of his nose. He nuzzles under the hand of a reporter taking notes in a notebook, looking for a head scratch. He does all the things one would expect from a friendly, energetic and affectionate 3-year old golden retriever.

“But even that’s not bad because the children see that the dog’s not perfect,” Schenkel said.

“It’s OK. They don’t have to be perfect, he’s not perfect either. but he’s very loving and beautiful.”

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