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Man's best friends make good listeners

LP-A 1st Grade student Grace Manning, reading with Larry at the DL Library on Thursday, Feb. 11. Larry, who is owned by Mary Holsen, received his therapy dog training at Lucky Dog in Detroit Lakes.1 / 2
Lake Park-Audubon 3rd Grade student Kiera Myers, left, reads with therapy dog Foxy.2 / 2

This winter, there were several first, second and third grade students in the Targeted Services program at Lake Park-Audubon Elementary School who started reading a book about working dogs in class.

The subject matter was interesting to the students, so their teachers came up with an idea: Why not give them a little first-hand experience with a real working dog?

Lee Ann Buttino, a Title I instructor at LP-A who also works with the Targeted Services after school program, saw something on the Detroit Lakes Library Web site about a program that allows kids to read to a dog.

So she approached Dotz Johnson, the children's services librarian in Detroit Lakes, about bringing some of the students to the library during one of its twice-monthly "R.E.A.D. to a Dog" sessions.

"We made arrangements together so that we would have enough dogs there (for the students' visit)," said Johnson.

"We sent out permission slips (to the students' parents), and requested a bus driver to bring us there," added Buttino.

On Thursday, Feb. 11, a group of 21 students and their teachers made the trip from Audubon to Detroit Lakes for the special session.

There were also three dogs -- Larry, Annie and Foxy -- on hand, with their owner-handlers.

Over the course of the next hour, the students received a brief tour of the library from Johnson -- many had never visited there before -- and then each of them got their turn to read with one of the three dogs.

"They selected the stories themselves," Buttino added. "They could do fiction or non-fiction, just as long as it was at their reading level."

The event was an unqualified success.

"The students loved it -- they were really excited beforehand, too," Buttino said.

The name "R.E.A.D." stands for "Reading Education Assistance Dog." Many of the dogs and handlers that participate in the local program received their training at Lucky Dog Boarding & Training Center in Detroit Lakes.

Lucky Dog's Mary Holsen worked with Johnson to establish the program about three years ago.

"I was doing therapy visits in Fargo, and wanted to do something more local," Holsen explained. "The R.E.A.D. program was kind of intriguing."

When Lucky Dog held its first R.E.A.D. training seminar, about 12 dogs and their handlers showed up.

All of the therapy dog teams that take part in the reading sessions at the Detroit Lakes Library are registered with Delta Therapy, Holsen noted, which means that they have all received proper training.

Though Lucky Dog holds regular training and evaluation sessions for therapy dogs, they do not have to receive their training there in order to work with the library program, Holsen noted.

"They just need to be registered (as therapy dogs)," she added.

There is no set time frame for becoming a therapy dog team, Holsen said: it depends on the nature of the dog as well as the handler.

Some of the things that they look for in potential therapy dogs, Holsen said, include "a real easy going temperament, being interested in meeting new people and not fearful."

The handlers must also be willing to interact with those they visit, Holsen said, which means not all therapy dog teams are suited for every situation. Some are better suited for nursing home visits (which Lucky Dog also offers), and some for the library program, she explained.

The opportunity to actually experience something they were reading about was an invaluable one for the LP-A students -- and it also helped them improve their reading skills, Buttino said.

"Since the dogs don't interrupt or correct, they are remarkable listeners for beginning readers," Buttino said.

"They had a great time and the students continue to talk about their experience."

Though there is no age limit for participating in the "R.E.A.D. to a Dog" program, it is especially beneficial for those still learning to read, Johnson noted.

"It's a non-critical audience," she explained. "They (the dogs) just sit there and enjoy the attention. It's such a good thing for them (dogs as well as readers)."

Holsen said that "some of the neatest stuff to see" is the way the kids' confidence in their reading ability blossoms.

"We try to make it just a very relaxed, fun time for them to read," she said.

"A lot of times they seem to really get into the story... they show the dogs the pictures and get very animated talking to them about it.

"I've had several teachers comment to me that they don't get this excited in class," Holsen added.

Though the library program involves dogs only, Holsen said, therapy teams can include cats, guinea pigs, miniature horses and even chickens.

"We have our first therapy cat in Becker County now," she added.

"R.E.A.D. With a Dog" sessions at the Detroit Lakes Library are offered from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Thursdays of every month, year round.

Though parents are encouraged to sign their kids up for the sessions ahead of time, it is not required, Johnson said.

Kids who come in to the DL Library and read with the therapy dog for a total of 10 sessions will receive a free book, courtesy of the Becker County Friends of the Library, Johnson added.

For more information on the "R.E.A.D. With a Dog" program, call the library at 218-847-2168. For more information on therapy dog training (or training for other types of pets), contact Lucky Dog at 218-847-4100.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454