Milton program helps children gain confidence by reading to dogs

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Friday, May 27, 2011
— The child relaxed on an activity rug, reading aloud from a picture book.

Inches away, 7-year-old Lhasa apso Maggie May lay listening—attentive but so relaxed she almost appeared to be sleeping.

The child’s words flowed in the dog-friendly atmosphere provided by the Milton Public Library.

Children’s Librarian Stacey Schultz last fall jumped at the chance to have Maggie May and her handler, Deb Stover of Janesville, start presenting Tail Waggin’ Tutors.

The program by Dog Therapy International focuses on children reading to dogs.

“I’d been discussing doing a children’s reading to dogs program with the library director after learning other libraries and school libraries in the state were doing this and having some success,” she said.

“It’s a great idea to get kids in here learning to read and get them some more practice reading,’’ Schultz said.

Schultz contacted her daughter’s first-grade teacher to see if any of her students would be interested. The teacher contacted other elementary school teachers and the reading specialist, who knew some students were struggling with reading and needed help building self-esteem.

“The kids don’t feel self-conscious reading with dogs,” Schultz said. “If they make a mistake, they just keep going where when they read with another person, the adult will interrupt and tell them to read it again.’’

After the children are done reading, they get to play with Maggie May.

“She’ll do tricks with them as a reward for doing a great job,’’ Schultz said.

Parents of children in the program have commented about how much their children enjoyed reading, Schultz said.

The children who participated last fall were invited back in January and February. The weekly program will resume for four weeks in July and again this fall, Schultz said.

“We were really trying to focus on the kids learning to read, including kindergarteners and first-graders, but now have opened it up to all children,’’ Schultz said.

Maggie May, like the children she helps, is a success story, too.

Stover adopted her from the Rock County Humane Society in May 2009 on the same day her 16-year-old black lab died.

Maggie May was scared of everything, but she trusted Stover enough to make the transition into her new home quick and easy. Stover enrolled her in classes at the Beloit/Janesville Kennel Club.

Maggie May isn’t a typical Lhasa apso—a breed known for being aloof to strangers, not liking children and having an independent attitude. Stover saw Maggie May’s gift for working with children after watching her interact at the kennel club with a visiting young relative, who was born with birth defects.

Stover scheduled Maggie May for a test with an evaluator certified by Dog Therapy International. Maggie May was one of two dogs that day to pass the test that included an evaluation of her comfort around wheelchairs and crutches, walking on a loose leash while not picking up treats and following commands.

Maggie May and Stover have since participated in programs at the Milton Public Library, Jefferson and Lincoln elementary schools in Janesville and Hedberg Public Library in Janesville.

Like children improving their reading skills, Maggie May and Stover have reaped benefits through Tail Waggin’ Tutors. Stover said she no longer requires blood pressure medication, and Maggie May has transformed from a sheltered dog afraid of everything into a loving companion.

“She’s the joy of my life, my focus and my hobby,’’ Stover said.

“I love children but never had them. So it’s wonderful to watch her interact with the kids and see the joy they have. It’s really fulfilling.’’

Last updated: 5:07 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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