Traverse City Record-Eagle

Body & Soul

November 10, 2012

Therapy dog is popular attraction

INTERLOCHEN — It happens every second and fourth Wednesday of the month like clockwork.

Don and Cecelia Williams of Platte Lake load up the car with 8-year-old Katie and little Denny and head to the Interlochen Public Library kids' section. They get there just before 4 in the afternoon and have time to settle in before the children arrive.

Katie is more patient than most other 8-year-olds in the library. Kids pull on her ears and her eyelids and try to peer inside her head and she doesn't even react.

A St. Bernard and a Therapy Dogs International certified therapy dog, that's what Katie has been trained to do.

The dog and her owners have been working with children at the library since 2008, helping them become more comfortable with reading while she listens with her patient, furry ears.

"They can come and read to a dog and it's less threatening," Cecelia said. "They don't criticize, they just sit there and listen."

Katie and her cardigan Welsh corgi counterpart Denny have become expert at listening to the kids over the years, spending several hours at the library twice a month during the school year and weekly during the summer.

"We get various kids every two weeks, we don't always see the same kids," Cecelia said. "We see more in the summer that are repeats. They become more relaxed as the summer goes by."

Even though Katie is a big dog, her easygoing personality makes it simple for the kids to relax with her.

"She's a very laid-back St. Bernard," Cecelia said. "She's a very nice girl, very friendly. I wouldn't take just any dog into a place like that."

The Williamses were involved with service dogs well before they got Katie and Denny.

"Our obedience club in Virginia was looking for an outlet they could use to go into nursing homes and other places," Cecelia said.

That led to the group seeking out Therapy Dogs International, which provided them with the resources to find places to volunteer as well as the ability to become insured.

When retirement brought the couple to Platte Lake, they searched out a way to be involved near their new home.

"With us, (kids reading to the dogs) was something new," Cecilia said. "We'd heard about this sort of thing. We were at a dog show in Mount Pleasant and they had some information on it. We thought it would be interesting."

It's been interesting enough to keep the Williamses and their dogs coming back for the last four years, though having a good-tempered dog definitely helps.

"She pretty much behaves the same as when she's home," Cecelia said. "As she's gotten older, she has to sleep more. When she goes, she pretty much just settles in and sometimes, she'll sit and listen. "Sometimes, she'll lie down and listen. Sometimes, she'll be asleep and the kids will read to her anyway. Denny's more attentive, he stays awake, but the kids will read to her even if she's fast asleep."

Once, Katie fell asleep while a 4-year-old was reading to her. The child lifted up Katie's eyelid, just to make sure she was OK.

"She didn't even flinch," Cecelia said. "They're really patient about it.

Just because she's a good and patient dog doesn't mean that some kids aren't a little intimidated by her size.

"Sometimes, children are quite anxious to go over and pet her, but some are a little put off," Cecelia said. "Sometimes, you'll have a child who will sooner pet the smaller dogs than Katie. She's pretty big."

But Katie truly is a gentle giant. During peak months, kids come pouring in to read to, pet or lay by Katie, and she just rolls with it.

The dog even had her 15 minutes of fame when she was in an educational series of books called "Big Dogs Rule," featured in "Saint Bernard: Mountain Rescuer."

"She's the first thing in the book," Cecelia said.

It's appropriate that Katie would be featured in an educational book after all the reading help she's given children over the years — and a role for which dogs are well suited, Cecilia said.

"Dogs are more approachable," she said. "Cats sort of go off on their own. You could read to one, but they wouldn't be comfortable. Kids have more empathy with a dog than they do with other animals, they have a little more expression. They just seem like they're paying attention."

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