06/03/10 — Reading dog George hangs up his collar

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Reading dog George hangs up his collar

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on June 3, 2010 1:46 PM

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George, a therapy dog, was guest of honor at his retirement party at Meadow Lane Elementary School on Wednesday. For four years, students have read to him during his weekly visits as part of the READ -- Reading Education Assistance Dog -- program. The program is credited with helping improve reading skills, as well as boosting behavior and self-esteem among students.

George Pettypool has spent the last four years at Meadow Lane Elementary School helping students improve their reading and communication skills, simply by being a good listener.

Quiet and attentive, he has enjoyed the weekly visits where each student spent 15 to 20 minutes reading to him.

At home, though, he prefers chasing birds, running around the water hose and barking at trucks.

That's because George, a collie, is a registered therapy animal and part of the program R.E.A.D. -- Reading Education Assistance Dog.

But he has recently developed some back problems and shown signs that he is ready to retire, says his owner and handler, C.C. Hawkins, an animal care specialist and manager of the vet clinic on base.

He just turned 8, she explained to the group of fourth-graders as they gathered this week for a retirement party for their canine friend.

"In dog years for him he's in his late 60s," she said. "A big dog ages faster. George has gotten gray this year -- that's a sign of aging and stress."

She gave out Mardi Gras beads to the students in honor of their unique friendship, as well as a dictionary, notepad and certificate. Then she reassured them that George would be well cared for in his retirement.

"He's got a big yard. He's got a favorite spot under a pine tree," she said.

All told, she has six rescue dogs at home. Ms. Hawkins has been with the READ program for seven years, starting out with "Tux," who became the first READ dog in North Carolina.

Other animals have been used for safety presentations for Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the Boys & Girls Club and churches, and READ dogs also have been successful in working with patients at nursing homes.

Ms. Hawkins has particularly enjoyed the weekly visits to Meadow Lane, the only area school where the program is offered.

It's proven worthwhile, she said.

Whether students are struggling with reading skills, or simply need a boost of self-confidence, the comfort and ease of reading to an animal is very therapeutic, she said.

"A lot will give up, but if they'll read to the dog, they'll look forward to it, they'll count on it, they'll practice," she said. "And it's not just their reading -- self-esteem and other things will benefit, too."

Educators at the school have seen "a great improvement" in reading skills by students participating in the program, said Christine Mitchell, an exceptional teacher for first- through third-graders.

"But it's also helped with self-esteem and behavior," she added. "We have been able to use George and Noah (another of Ms. Hawkins' dogs) as a motivator to get the target behavior that we expect."

As students gathered around the collie one last time on Wednesday, some of them shared what George had come to mean to them.

"He's soft. He's cute. He listened," said Madashia Darden, a third-grader, who said she usually read him Junie B. Jones books.

She said she cried when she found out he was retiring, and said she would miss him.

Baily Joyce, a fourth-grader, said he also wished George didn't have to retire.

"I'm going to miss him because he's a great friend," he said. "We all love him."

The weekly experience had been "awesome," Baily said.

Except, he added with a smile, "George sometimes falls asleep. I'd just keep reading."

Fourth-grader Zhiquan Tyson also had fun reading to George.

"He's very nice," he said. "He would be licking us, he'd be giving gifts -- like bags of candy, stuff for Christmas, a necklace."

Zhiquan said he mostly read books about alligators and dogs, with an occasional mystery thrown in.

The time shared had been important, he explained, "so I can read more, incorporate and move to a higher grade, get an education and grow up to get my own house."

The students don't have to worry about finding a good listening ear next year, though, Ms. Hawkins said.

Gizzie, a Japanese chin dog, is trained and ready to take on the challenge in the fall, she said.