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Jasmine Beechy, a first-grader in Deb Zanders’ class, reads “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to Allie, an 8-year-old mixed-breed dog certified through Therapy Dogs International.
East County Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 4 years ago

Students read to therapy dog

by: Josh Siegel Staff Writer

EAST COUNTY — The one-person audience doesn’t judge or snicker.

She is comfortable.

She lies down on the classroom floor, red bandana around her collar, photo identification hanging from her neck. She occasionally flashes her freshly brushed teeth and sticks out her purple tongue during a dramatic part of the story.

Every Tuesday, first-graders at Bashaw Elementary read to Allie, an 8-year-old mixed-breed therapy dog certified through Therapy Dogs International — a non-profit organization with about 24,750 registered dog/handler teams in the country.

Allie belongs to first-grade teacher Deb Zanders, who has brought her to the Bashaw first-grade class for 15-minute reading sessions in the last three years.

Zanders believes the reading sessions teach children to feel comfortable communicating — with humans and canines — and boost their confidence in public speaking.

Although trained dogs have been known to help guard flocks, sniff for drugs, lead the blind and assist the deaf, their impact can also be more subtle.

According to studies referred to by Therapy Dogs International, simply holding or petting a dog can lower blood pressure, reduce tension and cure loneliness.

One boy in Zanders’ class had behavioral and social problems.

He lives with his grandparents, whom he never hugged and wouldn’t look in the eye.

And, in class, he’d hit and push classmates. He rarely paid attention.

“His grandma told me the boy has really opened up after reading to Allie,” Zanders says. “He always tells his grandma how much he loves Allie. Allie’s job is to comfort people. Reading and bonding with a dog is different. They don’t want to correct or interject. They just listen.”

The love is mutual.

Allie has always preferred humans to other dogs.

Maybe it’s because Allie suffers from her own identity crisis. According to Zanders, Allie might be half chow-chow, a fluffy Chinese breed known for its purple tongue, and half German shepherd. But her fierce loyalty also suggests she could be part Rhodesian ridgeback.

Zanders knew Allie was different. When touring a Manatee County animal shelter eight years ago, the 5-week-old mutt offered its paw and waddled to the front of its cage.

Zanders sought a future therapy dog that she could train to work with her mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s.

At 3 years old, after 6 months of training — during which Zanders taught Allie basic commands such as ignoring food, loud noises and distractions — Allie became a therapy dog after a day-long test in Brandon.
During the test, a temperament evaluator knocked over a wheelchair behind Allie. Allie didn’t flinch.

Next, the evaluator dropped a heavy phonebook. Nothing.

A plate full of home-cooked human food didn’t entice Allie, either.

Zanders had to be certified with the Therapy Dogs International as a handler, as well.

Rules state Allie must always be leashed and in the presence of Zanders during therapy sessions.

On workdays, Zanders asks Allie, “Are you going to work?”

Allie’s ears perk up and in a rare departure from her calm demeanor, she runs around the house.

“I can’t ask the question if we’re not going to work that day,” Zanders says. “She gets upset.”

On this day, first-grader Jasmine Beechy reads “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to Allie and a group of three students.

“I sit and read the same book over and over and Allie still enjoys it,” Jasmine says.

Allie stares into Jasmine’s eyes and stays still, ready to hear if the caterpillar turns into a butterfly.

“She (Allie) is living a long, happy life,” Zanders says. “Anybody who loves their work does.”

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