Caroline Jackson, RN, retired from Mission Hospital 17 years ago, but still has many friends there. Several of those friends are involved with the hospital’s Paws on a Mission program, which employs therapy dogs to help relieve stress for pediatric and oncology patients, among others.
Jackson has her own variation on the therapy dog theme. She takes Sunny, her five year old Italian Greyhound, who was a gift from a breeder, to libraries and schools to help children learn to read. Sunny, unlike most people, is a really good listener, and he listens to children who are having difficulty.
Some of those he listens to are homeless. Some missed kindergarten. Some have other issues standing between them and grade-level reading skills. Sunny is ready and willing to help all of them, but mostly he works with kids in first and second grades. He becomes their “reading buddy”, and listens attentively and non-judgmentally as they read out loud to him. Their confidence increases and their reading skills progress far faster than they would without Sunny’s help.
Sunny is not the only area dog helping kids learn to read, nor is Jackson the only person volunteering her time and her dog. Other dogs and owners who work with children include Myles, an Australian shepherd belonging to Kristen Walker; Bowie and Shooter, a pair of Shelties owned by Joy Newton, and Lily, a Shih Tzu owned by Susan Hale. Although a dog certainly does not have to be a purebred to help kids read, it happens that Sunny has a pedigree, and an official name, that are not used this side of the Westminster Kennel Club. Would you believe Champion Kismet Uwharrie Sunshine Forever? (Note: You might not believe all the certifications and titles for which Sonny has qualified, so they won’t be listed here.)
Jackson is an avid birder, but doesn’t have as much time for it as she once did. That’s because she has been taking Sunny to visit and help people frequently for over two years. They once visited with over 60 convicts in prison, but most of their visits are to schools and libraries as part of the Haywood County Library system’s Puppy Tales program. Jackson says that Sunny is “bouncy at home, but very calm with the kids.”
The kids who get to read to Sunny are not chosen by random, nor do they just happen to be in a library when Sunny and Jackson visit. Teachers choose the students who read to Sunny. They choose those who are struggling somewhat with their reading and who the teachers think might benefit from a few sessions with a handsome Italian. So a date is set, and Sunny, who earned his Canine Good Citizen certification when he was just a year old, does his part.
Like all those who have earned the AKC Therapy Dog certification – which requires 50 hours of training – Sunny “just knows what’s needed,” Jackson said. “What’s needed” could be almost anything from a simple, friendly wag to a wet kiss of a little hand. But mostly, “what’s needed” is rapt attention to young readers, and Sunny is really good at providing it.