The Tail Waggin’ Tutors at Newburgh Free Library

How local therapy dogs are “tutoring” kids with reading difficulties

Suzanne Taurone was in a dog park years ago when she noticed a van in the parking lot. The passengers, including a mentally disabled woman in a wheelchair, were fixated upon her quartet of canines. Taurone’s dog, a Cane Corso named Tinkerbell (if you’re familiar with this massive and majestic breed, you’ll get the irony), went over to say hello, “carefully climbing up and kissing her on the cheek. The total joy that I saw from this young woman made me cry,” reflects Taurone. “I then knew I had to find out more about therapy dogs.”

Since that moment of serendipitous bonding, Taurone, the Wappingers Falls resident behind Suzanne’s Dog Training, has trained approximately 30 dogs, all tested by Therapy Dogs International. While they offer great solace to the likes of nursing-home residents and hospice patients, they also help instill confidence in children who struggle with reading.

In 2012, inspired by a patron who owned a licensed therapy dog, Lisa Kochik, head of the Newburgh Free Library’s Youth Services Department, inaugurated the Tail Waggin’ Tutors program. On Saturdays at the Main Library — and now on Tuesday evenings at the Newburgh Mall’s Town branch — kids settle in with one of Taurone’s trained dogs and read aloud for 15- to 20-minute intervals.

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“This program is helping these kids. It doesn’t make any difference if they read the word wrong, or if they’re at a high school reading level, the dogs don’t care” — Kathy Sheehan-Trappe, Finkelstein & Partners, whose Golden Retriever, Sadie, is pictured above

“One of the most beautiful things I observed was a little boy with a bad stuttering problem. Within 10 minutes of reading with the dog, it was completely gone,” says Bonnie Sakow, library assistant in the Youth Services Department, who took over the program shortly after Kochik launched it. “The presence of the dog just creates so much calm and peace. They feel no pressure.”

Initially, Tail Waggin’ Tutors was designed for children ages six and older, but some children as young as three make their way in “because their parents realize the dog is the only way to get them to read,” Sakow points out. “They know the dog is not judgmental; if they can’t pronounce a word correctly, it won’t say anything. Even kids who are fearful of dogs at first get a bit closer to them each time because they see that even the big, intimidating ones are total mushes.”

Fourteen different dogs make appearances at the Newburgh Free Library, ranging from Salvatore, a small Chihuahua, to Ella, a Great Dane. “It brings tears to my eyes,” says Sakow, “to see how thrilled parents are watching their children enjoy something they didn’t think they ever would.”

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