Yesterday afternoon at downtown’s Main library, Jan McCollain, 51, volunteered the calm demeanor and ruffly ears of her dog Stella, 8, to kids in need of reading practice. In Stella’s youth, said McCollain, she was a prize-winner among Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, a breed known for its sociability and eagerness to please.
Their purpose? To relax children who feel anxious reading aloud. Those involved in the programs say that the attention of a non-judgemental dog can encourage children who may be intimidated by the more exacting guidance of a human tutor.
Five times per week at different Cincinnati library branches, Stella and other therapy dogs (accompanied by their human guardians) meet children one-on-one, to offer a soft and uncritical ear. McCollain, a former pet store employee who adopted Stella from her breeder after the pacific little dog’s moment in the spotlight had waned, said, “She was given to me, and I knew right away that she was perfect.”
That’s hard to argue with. For most of 90 minutes Stella lay with her white muzzle stretched onto McCollain’s leg, lifing her eyebrows away from huge eyes to welcome each child with a look of warmth and attention.
Some who had read to Stella before, skipped or circled shyly in, to feel her silky head and ask how she was feeling; some strode in with their reading books already open; and some who were too young to read, toddled warily around her as their mothers read to them.
One little girl with two pigtails and thick glasses, was effervescent at seeing Stella again, and full of questions–how had Stella and McCollaim met, why did Stella seem to have a broken nail, and how had she gotten such a fancy name with “King” in it?
McCollaim told a story of the King who had loved the breed, and his wife who had nervously stroked her thumb print right into their dogs heads when he went to war, leaving the characteristic brown “Blenheim spot” at the top of many dogs’ crowns.
“Stella’s the best dog in the world,” she was explaining to me as the little girl bounded in. “I love my other two dogs, but this one’s special.”
Before opening her book, the girl knelt and touched Stella’s ear, and agreed. “She’s the most special dog I’ve ever seen.”
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All sketches are by the author.
Stella comes to the Main library’s Children’s Learning Center every 2nd Friday of the month from 3-4:30 p.m., and to the Walnut Hills branch every 4th Friday at the same time.