Community mourns death of Read to Sydney's beloved therapy dog

Sydney, a 10-year-old border collie and therapy dog, lost her battle to leukemia May 11.


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  • | 12:38 p.m. May 21, 2016
  • West Orange Times & Observer
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OCOEE  Walking into the West Oaks Mall space that the Read to Sydney organization occupies, one might feel a little different now, like something is missing. That missing piece is Sydney, the border collie and the organization’s namesake, who helped children learn to read over the last five years.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Sydney’s vet found a large mass in her abdomen and she was diagnosed with leukemia. On Wednesday, May 11, the 10-year-old therapy dog lost her battle.

Thom Battisto, Sydney’s owner and founder of Read to Sydney, adopted her from a foster home six years ago after losing one of his other dogs. As he sat and met a few of the dogs there, there was no real connection between them — until the foster mom brought out Sydney.

“Sydney sat in my lap, put her lead on my shoulder, and I said ‘That’s it, don’t even bring the other dogs out,’” Battisto said. “I look at it as Sydney found me.”

He got her certified as a therapy dog, and they started out making nursing-home visits, before graduating to humane education and teaching children to take care of their pets. Shortly after this, Battisto’s young niece came to visit him and was learning to read.

“We suggested she sit with Sydney and read a book to her,” he said. “It seemed like Sydney was sitting there paying attention, so we did research on reading dogs, and that’s when we started Read to Sydney.”

“We’re not sure if her former owner had a child with a disability, but if she saw a child in a wheelchair she would go around it, sit as close to the wheelchair as she could and put her head on their lap so they could pet her.” — Thom Battisto

As a child, Battisto himself struggled with reading and dyslexia. He found that reading to an animal gives children a sense of security in a judgment-free zone, and since then, they have visited libraries, schools and more to have children read to Sydney. Just a little more than a year ago, they opened a location in the West Oaks Mall, where they invited children and their families to come and read to her for a few hours each Sunday.

Battisto said Sydney loved children, and they worked with about 2,000 kids each year. She was great with all kids, but Battisto said she seemed to have a special connection with kids with special needs.

“We’re not sure if her former owner had a child with a disability, but if she saw a child in a wheelchair she would go around it, sit as close to the wheelchair as she could and put her head on their lap so they could pet her,” he said. “She worked with a lot of children with autism and Down syndrome. She loved them all, but there was a bond between her and children with a disability.”

Although Sydney is no longer around, Battisto will continue her legacy and do what he thinks she would want for him to do — continue the reading program and help children learn to read. Battisto and others will continue the reading center and will go to schools and libraries with different therapy dogs.

Additionally, the program’s name will remain Read to Sydney.

“Everyone just fell in love with her, and she wanted to say hello to everybody,” he said. “If she was in a room with 100 people and there was one person that was afraid of her, she would gravitate to that person and kind of give them a hug, like ‘It’s OK, I’m nice.’ She loved everybody, and everybody loved Sydney.”

 

Contact Danielle Hendrix at [email protected]

 

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