SHELTON, Conn. -- Any adult who has had to speak in public knows how paralyzingly stressful it can be. But imagine how nerve-racking it is for a little kid, who is just learning to read, and has to do it aloud in front of classmates?
Now imagine instead an audience of one, a “listener” who is non-judgmental, patient and who will give you his paw. If he has soft fur, a wet nose and a goofy smile -- that would be Ollie, a certified therapy dog.
“It’s a lot better to read in front of someone who loves you, unconditionally,” says Dorothy Sim-Broder of Written Words Bookstore in Shelton.
Ollie and his “mom,” Carol Kirby of Oxford, have been taking part in the store’s twice-monthly B.A.R.K (Books And Reading for Kids) program for a year.
Reading to the 5-year-old sheepadoodle (part sheepdog, part poodle) not only helps kids build self-confidence and skills, it also cultivates a “love of reading,” Kirby says.
Sim-Broder says some young customers will happily pick out 10 books on their own while others might stand shyly and silently by while a parent takes one book after the other off the shelves in an attempt to find one they like.
All that reticence vanishes when the kids are sprawled on the floor with Ollie. “We really want them to take the lead,” she said. “They can sit on the floor. They can sit on a chair. They pick what they want to read. There really are no rules.”
Ollie, trained by Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs of New Jersey, is laid-back and loves attention. He'll let kids scratch him behind his ears or hold his paw.
“He’s just a big hunk of love. No one can resist him, not even the adults,” Sim-Broder said, joking that sometimes she has to “beat them off with a stick.”
Ollie, who Kirby fondly calls "a couch potato," also works at schools, libraries and community events. They recently took part in a fundraiser for Ann’s Place, a Danbury-based cancer support organization.
But he doesn't get "paid" while he's working; the "treats come later," Kirby says.
Kirby is involved with Newtown-Strong Therapy Dogs, formed in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy. The school shootings took 26 lives, most of them children's, and left the community shaken to its core. Their dogs comforted residents, visitors and first responders in the difficult months that followed. Since then, it has certified 15 handlers and 13 therapy dogs.
It mostly works with children, but also provides home visits to the elderly.
The dogs are mostly golden retrievers, there is a Newfoundland and a Jack Russell Terrier mix too. “They all have lots of personality,” Kirby says, adding that “our sole mission is to make people feel better.”
Kirby says she can see evidence of the B.A.R.K.’s impact.
The kids who at the beginning might have come in and just read what was available there are now bringing their own books, with bookmarks in them. “It shows that they’ve been practicing on their own,” Kirby says. “It’s so great to see them both develop self-confidence, and a love of reading, too.”
B.A.R.K. is open to children ages 6 to 12. Each child gets a half-hour to read to Ollie, meaning that the store can fit in two or three per session. To reserve a time slot, call 203-944-0400.
The store is located in the Conti Building at 415 Howe Ave., Suite 888, Shelton.