Crozet Dog Becomes Literacy Specialist

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Lucy the "reading" dog
Lucy the “reading” dog

Crozet has its own certified therapy dog. Lucy went from being a stray on the roads to a helper in a reading program at the Crozet Library coordinated by Rhonda Johnson.

Lucy is a serene Black Labrador mix with a soft, shiny coat. She and her owner, Crozet resident Ellen Braun, work together twice a month with local kids in the Crozet Library.

Lucy is focused on kids learning how to read, Braun said. She loves kids and likes to listen.

Many therapy dog and handler pairs visit settings like hospitals and nursing homes, where patients or residents might miss their own pets and get a sense of comfort and love from the visits. Well-established research shows that therapy dogs help the healing process, said Braun. Interactions with therapy dogs lower stress, lower anxiety levels and may increase levels of hormones associated with healing. There’s medicine in a little unconditional love.

This same unconditional love helps kids develop their reading skills. Lucy listens as youngsters read to her; she does not judge or correct. The reading sessions at the Crozet Library are usually one-on-one and range from 15 to 30 minutes for kids 6 to 12 years old. Braun stays close by and helps Lucy focus. Lucy cuddles with some of the kids, leans on others and sits calmly next to some, listening. When things work best, each kid tells a favorite story to Lucy, as if he or she is the teacher and Lucy is the student, which helps build the child’s confidence.

To get Lucy ready to start training as a therapy dog, Braun worked with her on basic obedience training. Lucy had been a stray and was adopted through Greater Richmond Lab Rescue at one year of age. Partly because of her background, it took steady work over a year to build trust and ensure that Lucy could be handled in unpredictable circumstances. To get certified as a therapy team, Braun and Lucy completed an obedience test and a series of observed nursing home visits with an experienced dog trainer who volunteers as a tester/ observer for Therapy Dogs, Inc.

Therapy Dogs, Inc., is one of a number of organizations that certify therapy dogs to make sure the dogs are fit, healthy, up-to-date on vaccinations and able to function well in clinical settings. It is a non-profit with national reach and over 12,000 dog and handler teams.

The Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA gives important support to area therapy dog teams through a program, led by Kaicee Robertson, that helps match volunteer therapy dog teams with local organizations for service.

Therapy dogs are different than service dogs. Service dogs are bred for specialized roles such as support dogs for people with visual or hearing impairments. Service dogs undergo years of training. Therapy dogs are usually family pets trained by their owners. They spend most of their time as family pets. Many are mixed-breed dogs from shelters or rescue organizations. Braun said Lucy is like other Crozet dogs; she naps on the couch, madly loves the sport of tennis ball, and swims at Mint Springs.

Sign-up information for reading sessions with Lucy is available at the Crozet Library front desk, or by calling the library at 823-4050.

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