Pooches are all ears

Published 10:59 pm Saturday, January 11, 2014


An orientation session was held at North Suffolk Library on Saturday for people and pooches volunteering in Suffolk Humane’s BARKS program, giving children the chance to read to dogs to improve confidence. Twelve volunteers were Eileen Jewett and “Molly,” Mary-Beth Moore and “Pete,” Debra Schmitz and “Zoom,” Robin Smith and “Mocha,” Nicole Tougas and “Ginger,” and Kathy Watson and “Sam.”

Some war veterans return stateside to find a new life that seems so much less meaningful than having your buddies’ backs and making the world a safer place.

But “Sarge” is one of the lucky ones. He’s found a civilian role allowing him to continue serving others.

The German shepherd was a bomb-sniffer in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army, but now he’ll be helping children at North Suffolk Library learn to read.

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Joseph E. Pai adopted the dog when Sarge returned from the Middle East. “He’s been with me now five years,” Pai said.

After retraining as a therapy dog (no G.I. benefits, though), Pai said sweet-natured Sarge has accumulated 200 visits to assisted-living facilities, rehabilitation centers and the veterans hospital in Portsmouth.

He also attends weekly a Hampton elementary school where children read to him, and Pai said Sarge was invited to volunteer with Suffolk Humane’s BARKS (Books And Reading for Kids in Suffolk) program, which runs the third Saturday of every month this year, starting Feb. 15.

Volunteer pooches and their owners visited the library Saturday for an orientation session with Suffolk Humane’s executive director, Michele Thames.

The program is restarting at the library on Bennett’s Creek Park Road after a seventh-month hiatus. It was previously held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown, but Thames said the city approached her about moving it to the library.

“It came out of left field for us,” she said. “The program had pretty much stopped for a while, and we just did presentations as requested for school and Scout groups (for example).”

The library has certain advantages as a venue, according to Thames. Parents bring their

kids there on weekends anyway, she said, and there’s no shortage of books for the children to read to their new canine friends.

At the orientation, Thames told the dozen or so human volunteers, “The child just reads to the dog. You want to be as invisible as possible. You don’t want to be correcting, because what we try to do is just build the child’s confidence to be able to read out loud.”

Another of the volunteers was Eileen Jewett, with “Molly” the border collie-hound mix. “She just has a very pleasant personality, so I thought it would be a good thing to do together,” Jewett said.

As well as improving the reading skills of children, Thames said the program also teaches them that dogs can be best friends.

“It shows how that there are a lot of people in the community that have great relationships with their dogs and take them with them to places,” she said. “That’s one of the things Suffolk Humane works to promote.”

Pai said his ex-bomb-sniffer has adjusted well to his new purpose in life but often runs up to the TV barking when he’s watching something with gunfire or explosions.

But “he’s a family dog, and he’s good around adults and children,” Pai said.

There will be a kickoff event at the library Jan. 25 from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m., with therapy dog handlers and Suffolk Humane volunteers to answer questions. The monthly sessions will also run from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m.