As soon as George walked into the Kidz Korner room at the Jackson County Public Library, children magnetized to him.
He just stood there soaking it all in as the children petted his soft white fur.
George and the children then made their way to the program room, where they sat down with Heather Robinson, youth services program assistant at the Seymour library, to take turns reading a couple of books.
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When the kids weren’t reading a page or two from a book, they were petting George’s head and back.
Having George, a 56-pound, nearly 7-year-old standard poodle that’s a certified therapy dog, around made a difference for all of the children.
None of them had an issue with reading in front of others. They were as calm and at ease as George.
“A dog in this room with these kids, it makes them relax,” said George’s owner, Suzanne Steltenpohl. “It’s like they don’t think all of the eyes are on them. A lot of kids don’t want to read out loud and don’t want to participate in these programs because they are nervous or they are shy or they are scared. A dog kind of breaks that ice, kind of takes that all away.”
Paws to Read is a new program at the Seymour library, where children can practice their reading skills as they read to George. It’s for kids of all ages and literacy levels.
The other scheduled programs are from 4:30 to 5 p.m. Thursday and again Feb. 16 at the library.
Robinson said last year, George was a part of a program at the library that focused on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) initiatives. Children would read a story to George and then do some type of project.
The library redid its programming, changing from a dedicated STEAM class to a dedicated reading class. The staff thought George could play an important role in the new program, too.
“Some of the thought process behind it is simply to have children reading out loud to an animal would be less pressure,” Robinson said. “They are not reading to an adult where they are nervous or they are not reading in front of a group of other kids like in school where they can kind of be shy.
“The dog is not going to judge them,” she said. “It’s a more relaxing setting, and with George being a nice, soft white dog that will let you pet it, it just seems to take the pressure off of the kids. The kids love to be petting him, but they also love to be reading the stories, so they have developed into just wanting to read out loud.”
Steltenpohl said she noticed George’s impact in last year’s program.
“One little girl was like, ‘I don’t want to read.’ She just would not read,” she said. “I looked at her and said, ‘But George wants you to read to him,’ and she read every word.”
During the first Paws to Read, she saw a similar situation.
“A girl in the program said, ‘Oh, I’m not reading,’” Steltenpohl said. “I took George over there, and then she started petting him, and at least she stuck around, at least she would sit down with George.”
Sisters Alexis Nantz, 12, and Delorice Nantz, 15, both of Seymour, were among those attending Paws to Read.
The girls have a few dogs and a couple of cats at home, so they were used to having a dog around.
“I like dogs, and I also like to read a lot,” Alexis said of why she attended the program. “It can help little kids excel in learning and seeing a dog for the first time if they have never seen it and they don’t own one.”
Delorice recently became a teen volunteer at the library and said the new program is a good offering for kids.
“The dog doesn’t bite, and the kids really like him, so I think they should do it more,” she said. “I like helping the little kids be able to read better.”
Robinson said she also hopes the program helps the children’s reading abilities.
“When we read stories in story time, you always hope that the kids enjoy the story and like the book, but for introducing the dog, it’s just more the spoken word,” she said.
“Reading out loud kind of changes the story because if you’re reading quietly to yourself, you don’t get any inflections,” she said. “But if you noticed in the group when certain kids would read that are a little bit older, they picked up reading emphasis — reading out loud and then reading and learning how to put some life into the words.”
Along with George making a difference in reading, Steltenpohl said he serves another purpose.
“I want people to understand if they’ve ever been scared by a dog, especially kids, or hurt by a dog, that there are dogs out there that are good dogs,” she said. “Not all of them are the same. Give them a chance. (George) loves people. He’s kind of natural born to it. He just is.”
Steltenpohl began training George to become a therapy dog a couple of years ago. She and her staff at K9 Campers in Seymour had been grooming George for a couple of years, and then his owners had to move and couldn’t take him, so she decided to keep him as her pet.
“I got him, and he was just so calm and so affectionate and sweet,” she said. “I’ve been training dogs for about 16 years now, and I thought, ‘He could do this. This would be awesome.’”
Any type of dog can be a therapy dog as long as it has good manners, is calm, outgoing and friendly, doesn’t bark a lot and knows when and where to use the restroom, Steltenpohl said.
“He had a very good owner before me, and he also came out of a very nice kennel, so he had a great beginning from the get-go, which really helps,” she said of George. “He has been socialized his whole life, he has always been around a kid here or there, he has always been around other dogs and he has been taken out in public. Those are very important things for a dog that people don’t realize.”
Steltenpohl said the time it takes for a therapy dog to follow commands depends on the dog and the person. For George, it took about two months.
During training, she took George wherever she went to ensure he was comfortable around other people.
“We had been to every place that would let us in the door before he got his certification. Now, he can go anywhere,” she said. “I highly encourage everyone to take your dog to anywhere they’ll let you go because it’s great socialization.”
Before George, Steltenpohl had a Labrador that she trained to be a search-and-rescue dog. She and her husband conducted training at a K9 academy at Camp Atterbury in Edinburgh, and they would take dogs into nursing homes.
Around that time, she also got involved with the Waggin’ Pals 4-H Club in Jackson County since her daughter was a member. She now has been training 4-H’ers for more than 10 years.
Then last year, the library was looking for a therapy dog to be a part of a children’s program, and Steltenpohl thought it would be a great opportunity for George.
“My friend was like, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do George,’” she said. “He had visited other places, but not something like this, but I knew he would be fantastic. They asked us to come back for this program, and then in May, they are having high-schoolers in to study for finals, and they’ve asked George to come in and just hang out in the room and kind of bring the tension down.”
What: Paws to Read, a time for children to practice their reading skills as they read to George, a therapy dog
When: 4:30 to 5 p.m. Thursday and again Feb. 16
Where: Jackson County Public Library, 303 W. Second St., Seymour
Who: Children of all ages and literacy levels
Information: Call 812-522-3412, option 2, follow the library on Facebook or visit myjclibrary.org/events
Anyone interested in having Suzanne Steltenpohl and her therapy dog, George, a standard poodle, conduct a free program, call K9 Campers at 812-498-5000.