Paws with purpose: Reading Paws certified dogs visit the community library
Miniature poodles and therapy dogs trained to an elite level, Shadow and his sister Cuddles have been reporting to the library on Monday afternoons for the past few weeks in an attempt to find some children to read with them.
While Cuddles relaxed with a friend out in the car during their most recent trip, Shadow read with the Distad children – 13 year old Charlie, 6 year old Oliver and 4 year old Haven. Their mother, Tesha Keller Distad said her daughter’s teacher at Discovery reminded her about Reading Paws. Shadow was delighted, according to his handler Pat Krause. The kids were able to give him one treat per book read as he sat patiently, occasionally peering at the book, at the child who was reading or at the camera taking his photo.
“What is Shadow’s favorite color?,” Oliver asked Kraus as he sifted through the bag of treats, intent on finding the perfect one.
“Oh, probably orange,” Kraus replied and Oliver gave Shadow his orange treat.
Librarian Amy Hunter and Krause both agree that Shadow seemed particularly disheartened before the children arrived.
“This is his third time here and the first time we have read with children. Shadow has been sad,” Kraus said.
The brother and sister team have been therapy dogs for 12 years. Therapy dogs are sometimes put in stressful situations, so Reading Paws dogs are tested yearly to make sure they are up to the task.
Kraus and the dogs sometimes go directly into schools and work with children struggling with literacy. Their elite certification means they can also go into hospitals, assisted living facilities and jails.
They have done a lot of work with autistic children, Kraus said. Sometimes, they work just to help the autistic become comfortable around dogs so a family can have a dog without terrifying the child. One kid spent significant time being leery of calm little Shadow. The adults pretended they did not notice him working his way around the room in circles, closer and closer to the little dog. Finally, he quickly touched a paw. By the end of the day, he petted Shadow and said, “I love you, Shadow.” It was one of those moments that makes Kraus believe all of the effort and training are worth it. “It’s just things like that that bring joy to my heart,” she said. “Children with Asperger’s, it calms them if they hold the dog and pet the dog. It keeps them focused.”
She has given classes at the University of East Alabama for social workers, “ to let them know these are programs you can initiate when you go out and do different things.”
Having service dogs had been a goal of Kraus’ for as long as she could remember. When she retired, she found she had enough time to pursue it. She has learned a lot throughout the years from the dogs, from training and from researching the certification process. There are steps and different organizations that dogs can be certified through to be eligible for serving the community. Some require certification every two to three years, but Reading Paws is more stringent and requires yearly certification. She does it, she said, because the dogs so enjoy reading with the children. Cuddles recently faced some challenges to her work – she went blind, despite visits to vets and specialists – the cause is still unknown.
However, Kraus said she has adapted to her disability and is dedicated to her work. One of Kraus’ friends in the Healing Paws organization said that she should let Cuddles work for as long as Cuddles wants to work.
In her 12 years of volunteering with children, with patients in hospitals and in assisted living facilities, Kraus said she has no regrets. She feels all the effort and certifications are worth it. The wise little dogs she frequently takes into the community have taught her patience and kindness.
“My kids walked to her car and met her other dog [Cuddles]. They love dogs and books!” Distad later said.
Hunter said this is sort of a test period for the library to see if having a service dog regularly at the library to encourage reading is something the community wants. The Distad children hope it does.
Shadow, Cuddle and Kraus will be at the Big Sky Community Library again on Mon. Oct. 21 at 3:30 p.m. and Mon. Oct. 28 at 3:30 p.m.