LaGRANGE — Sitting cross-legged on a patterned blanket in the LaGrange Memorial Library’s Fackler Room on Tuesday, 2-year-old Isaac James quietly turned the pages of brightly colored children’s book “Walking Through The Jungle” as volunteer Nancy Nayswaner read to him aloud.
Isaac wasn’t the only one listening, though. Nayswaner’s 4-year-old English Labrador, Cooper, laid patiently nearby, awaiting his next treat. Cooper is a certified therapy dog that visits hospitals and, in Isaac’s case, helps youngsters become more comfortable with large dogs.
“He loves reading and animals,” said Isaac’s mother, Ashleigh Vernon of LaGrange. “This puts the two together, it seemed like a good fit, and it gets him more comfortable around dogs.”
Cooper doesn’t just help children to be more comfortable with dogs, he also helps them become more comfortable with themselves, Nayswaner said.
“A lot of kids don’t have the confidence to read out loud in class,” she explained. “So instead, they can come here and practice with Cooper, because he doesn’t judge.”
Cooper and Nayswaner, who volunteers with the nonprofit CAREing Paws, visit the library on the fourth Tuesday of each month, and children — most first through third graders — come and practice reading aloud to him.
“He’s just a special dog, and he’s really good with people and especially children,” Nayswaner said. “His main job is to just be loved on, to help lower people’s blood pressure.”
Cooper is different from a service dog, like the kind that help blind people cross streets. He’s trained to be more docile than most dogs, Nayswaner said. He’s been taught to allow just about anyone to pet him, and he doesn’t get upset when children pull his hair or ears.
Because he also goes to hospitals to visit cancer patients and people battling illness or injury, Cooper has to be able to remain calm when he hears loud, sharp noises, like the buzzing of an alarm or an intercom.
Sitting in a chair not far from Cooper and the two readers, Isaac’s mother looked on.
She brings her son to the library several times a week and wants him not just to be comfortable with dogs like Cooper, but also reading — the kind that’s done from good, old fashioned books, not iPads and computer screens.
“I think it’s important to touch the pages and turn the pages,” she said. “I want him to see the next picture as he turns the page. I think it’s important to touch the book. I’m concerned that they (kids today) may not value books as much.”
Vernon, who’s live in LaGrange for three years, said she tries to limit Isaac’s time in front of screens, and limits him to one to two hours per day, “but not all at the same time,” she said.
Back on the patterned blanket with Cooper, Nayswaner tries to coax Isaac into giving Cooper — who, at 116 pounds, is about twice the size of Isaac — into giving him a treat.
She placed a piece of carrot in Isaac’s hand and invited him to feed it to Cooper, but Isaac wasn’t so sure.
“Have you ever met a dog that likes carrots?” Nayswaner asked.
“Not me,” Isaac replied.
“His favorite treats are carrots and green beans,” Nayswaner said later. “He’s like a rabbit.”
It’s doubtful that a rabbit could make it through all the training Cooper has been through, though. With Nayswaner, Cooper has gone through all kinds of training and certification. Nayswaner has even been through a class to learn how to get children to read to Cooper.
“It teaches you how to get kids motivated to read and to challenge them to read,” she said.
At the end of the session, Isaac turned to Cooper and gave him a hug goodbye before leaving with his mother. Isaac doesn’t have a dog at home, but he does have plenty of books, his mother said.
“It’s important to me that he’s interested in a lot of things,” she said. “Books and reading expose him to a lot of things we (Isaac’s mother and father) might not think about. I think books expose him to the world, and everything in it.”
For more information about CAREing Paws, visit www.careingpaws.org or find them on Facebook. Anyone with a child who would like to read to Cooper should contact the LaGrange Memorial Library at 706-882-7784 and make an appointment, Nayswaner said.
Tyler H. Jones is a reporter at LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached by calling 706-884-7311, ext. 2155.