When Annie Rose enters the Winter Park Public Library, she captures everyone’s attention. Her golden hair, sweet face and blue vest make a statement as she walks quietly on all fours onto the elevator.
Annie Rose is a 5-year-old golden retriever, registered as a therapy dog who lends her paw in “Angel Paws to Read,” a program that promotes reading with the help of a certified therapy dog.
Three times a month, Be an Angel Therapy Dog Ministry Inc. brings therapy dogs to the Winter Park Library for children to read books to the dogs.
The ministry was established by June and Ross Feezel in 2004 after June volunteered with a pet therapy program called PetPals. That’s when she said she knew she wanted to continue volunteering with dogs.
“I wanted to make some other people happy with the dogs,” she said. “[People] light up like a Christmas tree when they see them. I don’t know too many people who don’t like dogs and it makes a big impact on their day.”
Now the program has over 90 teams, consisting of a handler and their dog, with roughly 25 of them rotating visits to the library. The other teams go to places like nursing homes, hospitals, rehabs, behavioral schools and churches where the therapy dogs provide people with some comfort and happiness.
Having children read to dogs allows them to practice reading, without getting judged if they stutter or mispronounce a word. The dogs are all ears, as many of them relax and even sometimes doze off as they are listen to the books being read to them.
Ethan James, 9, sits on the blue rug that lines the children’s story room on the second floor library, with his “Big Nate” book on his lap and Annie Rose sitting right next to him ready to lend a paw.
After his first “Paws to Read” experience, James is hooked. His family had a dog, but had to give it away, so being able to spend time with a dog while reading a book made his day. “Reading is fun, but I was a little nervous. Annie was standing when I first started reading but then she laid down so I think she was relaxing,” James said.
“I will definitely be back.”
The Angel Paws to Read Program has an incentive program, in case reading to a furry friend isn’t enough to convince them to come back. Every time the child comes to read to the dog they get a paw. After three paws they receive a free book, after six paws they receive another free book and once they get nine paws they receive a shirt and a certificate of achievement.
The reading program has a lot of repeat visitors, Feezel said. The incentives and the dogs promote reading as a fun activity, and boosts kids’ confidence in reading.
“The kids love it,” Feezel said. “They would keep going if they could. It brings them out of their shells. It helps them if they are depressed, or nervous. If they have behavior issues, it helps them become more sociable and not explosive since the dogs help keep them calm.”
Angel Paws to Read not only makes the children excited to come back and read, but also benefits the handlers. By volunteering in this program, the handlers not only supply the furry friend, but also help the children if they can’t pronounce a word and give back to the community.
Bob Coffman, Annie Rose’s owner, has been volunteering with Angel Paws to Read for over three years now.
“The kids always seem to enjoy it,” Coffman said. “Reading to the dog really seems to help them.”