Teams of dogs and owners meet for a Reading with Rover class at Freeland Library. More therapy dog training classes are expected to be offered through South Whidbey Parks Recreation. (Patricia Guthrie / Whidbey News Group)

Teams of dogs and owners meet for a Reading with Rover class at Freeland Library. More therapy dog training classes are expected to be offered through South Whidbey Parks Recreation. (Patricia Guthrie / Whidbey News Group)

Whidbey Island library goes to the (therapy) dogs

Once trained, they’ll be providing comfort, stress relief and a sunny, furry disposition.

By Patricia Guthrie / South Whidbey Record

Logan survived a rough start. Livy dropped out of school.

Echo tired of modeling and Maggie’s search-and-rescue days ended.

And Dudley, well, Dudley just needed to get out of the house.

They met in a therapy class every Wednesday night for the past month.

There, they learned not to sniff each other’s butts, get overly excited or growl.

Logan, Livy, Echo, Maggie and Dudley are Whidbey Island’s first class of canines being trained as therapy dogs under the Reading with Rover program.

Once certified, they’ll be out in the community at schools, libraries, long-term care centers, hospitals and other places providing comfort, stress relief and a sunny, furry disposition.

“It’s just this magic ball of fur,” said LouAnn Hepp, whose small black-and-white pari poodle Ruby has been attending South Whidbey Elementary School weekly for the past several years. “Some kids read and cuddle up to her. Some kids tell Ruby their problems. It’s a calming effect. There’s also a lot of teachers that need Ruby. You can just see them relax around her.”

Elementary students look forward to “Ruby Time” every Tuesday and Thursday, Hepp said. They curl up and read to her in the school library, pet her, brush her, hug her and ask Hepp questions about her.

Logan, an English golden retriever owned by Jamie Stahl, sits during therapy training class. (Patricia Guthrie / Whidbey News Group)

Logan, an English golden retriever owned by Jamie Stahl, sits during therapy training class. (Patricia Guthrie / Whidbey News Group)

“It’s very clear to me we need more of these teams,” Hepp said.

She recruited trainer Diane Trupiano from the Reading with Rover’s Woodinville office to teach the six-hour course. Classes were divided into two-hour segments in which owners learned how to teach their dogs to stay focused on their job, ignore other dogs and tolerate the intense focus of many strangers.

The class is offered through South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District and costs $150.

Officially, the primary focus of Reading with Rover is helping children “discover the joy of reading while developing literacy skills and confidence in a safe environment.” But kids with reading difficulties just know it’s more fun to read stories to a snugly dog than out loud to their peers in a classroom. Dogs listen and they don’t snicker or laugh at mistakes.

MieMie Wu, a librarian on Bothell, started the nonprofit organization based on a similar kid and canine reading partnership in Utah. Reading with Rover has expanded to many school districts, libraries and bookstores around Puget Sound.

Reading with Rover teams are called D.R.E.A.M. teams, which stands for: Dogs for Reading, Education, Assistance and More.

Owners of the doggy students had various reasons for wanting to be a therapy team.

“Echo needed another job and he loves children,” said Echo’s mom, Barbara Powell. “He will like to lie there and listen.”

Echo is a 131-pound Leonberger, a giant among dog breeds with droopy brown eyes, layers of golden fur and a love of swimming and socializing.

He needed a new career, Powell said, after retiring from the dog-show circuit.

All the dogs and their moms (owners were all women in this first class) must pass an evaluation and undergo 12 hours of provisional training before receiving the bright red Reading with Rover registered therapy dog patch.

Because there’s no Reading with Rover registered trainers on Whidbey, dogs and owners may have to go off island for the required exam. Dogs also must pass required health tests.

Trupiano has trained many dogs, some of them rescue dogs, to be registered Rovers.

“They are not service dogs,” she emphasized. “Service dogs are trained specifically for one person. Therapy dogs have to be everything to everybody. They help with crisis teams in disasters. They go into hospice, nursing homes, hospitals. We also go into local colleges during finals week to help students de-stress.”

This past week, Trupiano brought along Milly, a black lab, to Wednesday evening’s Reading with Rover class. It took place in the Freeland library, appropriately. All the dogs stayed on leases and got frequent potty breaks. They also gobbled up lots of treats as rewards.

One exercise called “Meet and Greet” required teams to simulate going for a walk with their dog, meet another dog and owner, stop, chat and keep their dogs at their side. No sniffing or nose-to-nose doggy greetings allowed.

Jamie Stahl’s lab, Livy, had tried training as a service dog but failed.

“A drop out,” Stahl said with a laugh. “This is a different process. In many ways, it reaches a lot more people and your dog becomes a companion to many.”

Near Livy, a puppy-looking English golden retriever named Logan looked longingly in need of a toy.

“He’s not a puppy, everyone thinks so though,” said Karen Benson. “He’s probably 8 or 9 years olds. We don’t really know because he’s a rescue from Montana. His full name is Logan Montana Bear.”

Benson said she hopes to soon open a book store with Logan a steady presence in the children’s section.

Other teams in training included nine-year-old poodle Dudley and Joyce Golden. She said Dudley has been trained as a therapy dog elsewhere but not this specific program.

“I’m retired. He doesn’t get out to do as much,” she said. “He loves working with kids.”

Coupeville Elementary School teacher Susan Marchese hoped her retired search-and-rescue golden retriever, Maggie, would soon be her classroom assistant. “I know how hard reading can be for some kids,” she said.

For information on Whidbey’s Reading with Rover program, contact LouAnn Hepp, la@vistadx.net

This story originally appeared in the South Whidbey Record, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald.

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