Therapy dogs give kids courage to speak with Paws to Read

Reprinted from Kearney Hub

By RICK BROWN Hub Staff Writer | Posted: Monday, February 2, 2015 11:33 am

KEARNEY — Gretel knows exactly what to do when a child reads: Listen.

“It was fun reading to the dog,” Abby Racer said. “Sometimes, she wanted to move away but I think she was listening to me most of the time.”

Abby, 8, finished her storybook and petted Gretel during Paws to Read, a monthly event at Kearney Public Library that connects young readers with registered therapy animals. Abby attended Paws to Read with her father, Brent Racer of Kearney.

“We heard about this today and came to try it out,” Brent said. “It’s a neat program. I think the kids enjoyed it.”

Abby, a third-grader at Kenwood Elementary School, said she enjoys reading chapter books, especially The Rainbow Fairies book series.

Claudia Murr, Gretel’s owner, said she has owned six therapy dogs over the years. Five of them still live with her. Gretel and her brother, Hansel, were dumped on a country road.

“After I brought them home, I was out walking them and I wondered what I was going to do with two dogs,” Murr said. “What am I going to name them? Well, they are the fairies’ dogs, so it just hit me, Hansel and Gretel from the fairy tale because that’s their story, too.”

Murr said she has been grooming her dogs to work as therapy animals for 15 years.

“A number of years ago I worked with four children at Bryant School,” she said. “In the two years I worked with them, those boys improved their reading to the point where they could go ahead to the next grade.”

One child who had a speech impediment felt shy about reading in front of others.

“By the end of his school year, his teacher told me that he was holding this hand up in class and answering questions,” Murr said. “He made an excellent change and really grew.”

Murr retired from her job in manufacturing several years ago. Although she has no background in teaching, Murr understands how reading to an animal can make a change.

“I teach when I have my animals with me,” she said.

The Paws to Read event allows Murr to teach through example and experience by showing children something as simple as the feet of her dogs.

“I’ve had little kids who didn’t know that dogs had toenails,” she said. “So I show them their toenails and let them touch the pads of the dogs’ feet. Oh, they’re rough. Yes, just like the bottom of your shoe so you can run fast. So, there are teaching moments all the time.”

The Paws to Read program gives Murr a nice excuse to have five dogs running around the house because they’ve all been working, she said with a laugh.

Allowing children to read to a dog might sound silly, but Murr believes the unconditional love of a trained therapy dog gives a certain amount of warmth and confidence to struggling students. She also took her dogs to see patients at hospitals, cancer centers and visiting rooms as well as schools. The connection between dogs and humans exists in a way that defies words, Murr believes.

“Children can touch the dogs and feel the warmth,” Murr said. “My dogs are used to it. When it comes time to go, Gretel wants to head to another child.”

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