MIDDLEBURY — Ilsley Library’s newest star is a scene-stealer: At 120 pounds with sleek black hair and soulful brown eyes, the reading assistant draws a crowd the moment she steps into a room.
That this budding literacy advocate just happens to be a dog doesn’t particularly worry Judah Hamer, the youth services librarian at the Middlebury library. Shoopie the Newfoundland, a therapy dog now making weekly appearances at the library to read with children, is just the thing to make reading out loud exciting for some kids, Hamer explained.
Four-year-old Shoopie belongs to Bridport residents Tom and Nancy Maxwell, who run the Fairy Tale Farm bed and breakfast on Route 125. They brought the dog home from a breeder in Rochester, N.Y., a little more than a year ago, and knew right away that they wanted to do therapy work with their new family member.
“It’s a chance to do something that combines our love of dogs with making a contribution and giving back,” said Tom Maxwell.
SHOOPIE GETS COMFORTABLE as Jyauna Treadway, 14, reads to her Tuesday afternoon at the Ilsley Library in Middlebury. Shoopie acts as an audience for young readers every Tuesday after school.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
So they worked with Shoopie to train the docile giant. Now that she’s certified to work as a therapy dog, they make weekly visits to Helen Porter Nursing Home as well as the library.
The Maxwells’ interest in therapy work coincided with a conversation luckily happening around the same time at Ilsley, where Hamer and one of the library assistants were talking about a growing trend of bringing dogs into libraries to work with kids. When the Maxwells approached the library, Hamer said, the opportunity was just too good to pass up.
So, starting earlier this month, Shoopie’s showing up on Tuesday afternoons for her weekly appointments with young readers. She’s a kid magnet, Hamer said. Sure enough, as soon as Tom Maxwell and Shoopie arrived Tuesday afternoon in the children’s room at the library, kids began tumbling out of the woodwork to pet the dog.
On Tuesday, Shoopie’s afternoon of reading kicked off with “Strawberry Shortcake and the Butterfly Garden,” read out loud by four-year-old Naomi Brightman. As her mother, Alisa Breau, looked on, Brightman turned the book to show Shoopie a picture, and then got back to reading.
“We come every week to read to Shoopie,” said Breau after her daughter had finished her book. The family has a dog at home, and Brightman loves the animals.
And Breau is a fan of the therapy dog program at the library. She said the program, and the extra reading practice, has definitely made Brightman a more confident reader, particularly when it comes to reading out loud.
It’s not just the littlest readers who clamor for a chance to read with Shoopie. After Brightman vacated her spot among the cushions, 12-year-old Haven Tate from Bridport and 11-year-old Steddy Amory took turns reading books from the “Skippyjon Jones” series of picture books, about a Siamese kitten with a group of imaginary Chihuahua friends.
Between reading sessions Shoopie heaved herself up and lumbered around the room for a stretch, but while the children read she was mostly still, content to flop on the floor near the young reader with her massive head resting on a forepaw.
Occasionally, though, Shoopie sat up, wandered a bit closer to the readers, and smothered them in kisses. In some cases, she dwarfed the kids. In fact, according to Amory, this is his favorite part of reading to Shoopie: “Getting a kiss and hugging her.”
“People seem to be really drawn to the dog,” Maxwell said, after Amory and Tate vacated the reading nook and eight-year-old Genna Hale took over, giggling as Shoopie’s tongue lapped across her glasses. Maxwell’s wife has told him that she can’t take Shoopie into town unless she’s willing to stop frequently to answer questions and let passersby dote on the loveable dog.
Hamer is excited because the chance to read with Shoopie is just another chance for kids to connect to the library.
But reading with Shoopie isn’t just an opportunity to pet a friendly dog. Hamer also thinks it’s a great way to help kids learn to read, especially kids who might be reluctant readers or who find the task challenging.
“If you’re an adult who spends time with kids who are learning how to read, you’re always balancing, ‘OK, when do I jump in? It’s taken them three tries to get that word and they’re not getting it. Do I jump in on the fourth try?’” Hamer said. Sometimes, that fear of making a mistake, or being corrected, can be frustrating for children.
“With a dog, that’s clearly removed,” Hamer said. “Kids can just work through it and read to the dog. The child can do this at his or her own pace, and make their way.”