Happiness is warm dogs and good books

Therapy dogs help little ones open up and overcome fears
The children gather in the Clarence Hay Library at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster. Photo by Judy Keenan.

Every two weeks at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster there is an event in the children’s library for youngsters who like to listen to stories, play games, sing and spend time with friendly dogs.  It’s Reading with Ruby,  Ruby being the Irish Setter owned by Gina Hayes who started the Cape Cod Therapy Dog Program several years ago.

Introducing Lucy and Hannah

Nine children ages four through ten sit on the brightly colored area rug when Pat Engstrom introduces her dog, Hannah, a large Chocolate Lab.  She tells the children that Hannah is six and one half years old, perhaps knowing intuitively that a half year is important to children.  Hannah, she continues, likes to play and run and swim.  Decked out festively in reindeer ears and a Frosty the Snowman bandanna, Hannah wags her tail and sits by Pat.  Then Lucy is introduced by her owner, Dottie Vesperman.  Lucy is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and today she is wearing a green and red collar for the holiday. Staffordshire potters in the mid-19th century made Lucy’s breed famous and now collectible as the model for Staffordshire spaniels, the quintessential Victorian decoration. Dottie tells the children that Lucy likes to dance and may do a trick for them later.

“How many of you have dogs at home?” asks Pat.  Little hands reach and wave.

Lucy does her high five trick for the eager groupl

“What kind of dog do you have?”  She asks.

In the rapid babble of answers, one little blonde girl tells everyone “I don’t have a dog cause my daddy’s allergic. “

Kids listen as the dogs mingle

As the dogs move through the group, hands reach out to touch them or take their leashes.  The dogs’ tails continue to wag and the children are encouraged to pet the dogs.  A large toy frog watches benignly from his seat of prominence in an arm chair. 

The next selection is The Twelve Dogs of Christmas.  Pat asks if any of the children would like to read a page.  Several of the older girls, Maddy, Abby and Emily volunteer.  Each reads a page or more and then passes the book on until it is complete.  From her bag, Pat brings out the book called Christmas Lights which has awesome twinkling lights on every page.  Once as the book was being passed from child to child, it was fumbled and dropped onto one of the dogs. His tail never lost a beat.

Sharing a favorite book
Pat shared her favorite childhood book with the children and told them how much she had liked it as a child but could not remember its name.  She mentioned that to her sister and one day a package arrived at Pat’s door.  Inside was Granny Glittens and her Good Will Mittens. “Maybe my favorite book will become your favorite book,” Pat suggested.

Teddy, the therapy dog in training gets a lot of attention.

Over the hour the children listened to If You Take a Mouse to The Movies, Santa Duck and Winter’s Tale, a beautiful book with fold outs of museum quality.  Reading was interspersed with a sing along of Jingle Bells and a game of Hot Potato.  Hannah and Lucy performed entertaining tricks like twirling and weaving on command.

"Puppies are like babies"

Towards the end, a Therapy puppy in training came to visit.  Teddy was wearing a Santa Hat and because he was so cute and tiny the children wanted to hold him.  As he was passed from one lap to the next Teddy spit up.  Pat was quick to explain that, “Puppies are like babies.  Babies’ spit up like that too.”

One little boy sat quietly all hour in his grandma’s lap.  Ben lives in Marshfield and his grandma, Genie Barber of Dennis, brought him to the program because she owns three Cavalier Spaniels and is interested in training the youngest one to be a therapy dog.  She had a picture of the dog on her Blackberry to show.

Therapy dogs charm both the young and the old

Here on the Cape, Therapy dogs regularly visit RHCI, nursing homes, the Brewster Lady’s Library, the Eastham library, and The Children Museum in Mashpee.  Suitable dogs (and their owners) are trained in two day intense workshops and then evaluated and graduated.  According to Gina Hayes it’s not the breed but the personality which can determine suitability for Therapy Dogs.  Any dog owner whose pet is at least one year old, healthy and with good socialization skills is a possible therapy dog.

Before the children leave they are given a postcard with a picture of Hannah and one of Lucy. Gina has a chuckle in her voice when she recounts how months ago one child who was a bit fearful and shy of Ruby, the Irish Setter Therapy dog, took home one of the postcards with Ruby’s picture.  Later, Gina saw the child’s mother who said, “That picture you gave my son, do you know he sleeps with it on his night stand.”  One child who overcame his fear, one happy mother, one happy dog, one satisfied dog owner makes for one great program.  


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