Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Caring canine: local therapy dog bringing a love of tales to young learners

Burlington Township resident Peggy Sander and her certified therapy dog, Isla, are helping overcome children’s fear of reading through their “Dog Tales” program at the Bordentown Library.

Burlington Township resident Peggy Sanders takes her occupational therapy dog Isla to Boundary Creek Natural Resource Area in Moorestown Wednesday, May 3. Sanders puts on Isla’s vest before the walk to let any passerby know she is a therapy dog.

Burlington Township resident Peggy Sanders and her therapy dog Isla are regulars at the Bordentown Library every Friday afternoon. Through the library’s “Dog Tales” program, Isla and Sanders are encouraging young learners to read without fear.

Sanders said from a young age, children are acutely aware if they struggle with reading. For that reason, Sanders brings Isla, a 4-year-old lab hound mix, to the library to sit with school-age children who can practice reading to the affectionate dog without fear of judgment. Sanders said studies have shown that petting a dog puts children in a relaxed state.

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“When they read with a dog, they get endorphins, they relax and they can fly,” Sanders said.

Bordentown librarian Ann Marie Latini said in the year and half since Sanders and Isla started their weekly visits, Isla has developed a following. When Sanders and Isla started going, there were one or two children who would read to Isla. Now, there are around 10 kids who come in consistently to read to Isla each Friday in addition to the children who filter in and out on any given Friday.

“She has her fan club,” Latini said. “They come in every week.”

Sanders said the experience has been rewarding for both her and the children who visit with Isla. She said in particular, she has watched one girl who struggled to read flourish since visiting with Isla. Prior to her visits, the girl refused to read in front of her parents, teachers and classmates, but reading to Isla has slowly but surely relaxed her enough to read aloud.

The girl now comes to the library with a group of friends to read with Isla. Sanders said she has been amazed by the girl’s comfort to read in front of her peers compared to her reluctance a year ago.

Latini said the program has been invaluable to the library. She said students as young as toddlers and as old as third grade come to have a positive association with reading.

“It’s an opportunity for kids to read to a non-judgmental animal and person,” Latini said. “Then they develop a love for reading because they come to see the dog.”

Burlington Township resident Peggy Sanders takes her occupational therapy dog Isla out for their morning walk at Boundary Creek Natural Resource Area in Moorestown on May 3. Isla sticks close by Sanders side as the two roam the park on a particularly sunny Wednesday morning.

When she first rescued Isla, Sander’s plan was never for her to become a reading therapy dog. She said she was simply a dog person and wanted to adopt. She said Isla was full of energy when she adopted her four years ago.

However, when Sanders had her knee replaced when Isla was a few months old, her puppy unexpectedly laid patiently and quietly by her side. She said Isla was essentially her nursemaid, and it got Sanders thinking if Isla was this kind and patient with her during her time of need that she had the right disposition to become a therapy dog for others.

Once Sanders recovered, she set out to get Isla certified as a therapy dog. She said Isla underwent 10 weeks of classes where she learned to interact with children, walk around wheelchairs and other useful skills for a therapy dog.

Therapy dogs — unlike service dogs — are trained to interact with groups of people. Service dogs, by contrast, undergo a more extensive training process where they learn to watch their owners at all times for signs of physical or emotional distress and should never be petted because it could distract them from their job, Sanders said. Therapy dogs, on the other hand, are used to comfort or interact with people and generally bring a sense of joy.

Sanders said Isla has always been especially affectionate toward children, and for that reason, once she was certified, she approached the Burlington County Library System to get Isla working. Latini said both Isla and Sanders have brought something special to the library community.

Through their “Dog Tales” program, Sanders has met parents who have asked her and Isla to visit their children’s schools. Sanders is in the process of getting Isla cleared to go to an Autism school, and she said while nothing is definite yet, she’s eager to expand on their work.

Cecilia Penna (left) pauses from taking photos to ask Peggy Sanders (right) if she can pet her occupational therapy dog Isla on Wednesday, May 3 at Boundary Creek Natural resource Area. Sanders encouraged Penna to pet Isla and told her occupational therapy dogs, unlike service dogs, are for everyone’s therapy who comes in contact with Isla.
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