RICHMOND — Sophie Moore, 8, doesn’t always like to read, but on Thursday she sat down with a treasured book and read it, meticulously, completely and out loud to Lily, a fellow 8-year-old.

Charlie Purrington, left, reads aloud from a “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book to Gail Balch, left, and her 8-year-old labradoodle, Lily, on Thursday at Isaac F. Umberhine Public Library in Richmond. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

The finer points of “The Wonky Donkey,” a surprise hit of a children’s book that owes its recent popularity to the viral nature of social media, were probably lost on Lily, but that didn’t matter. Moore was practicing her reading in a no-judgment zone at the Isaac F. Umberhine Public Library, to her audience, Lily, an Australian labradoodle.

Like libraries across the state and across the nation, Richmond’s public library is employing a canine secret weapon in service of improving childhood literacy.

Nearly a decade ago, the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine looked into the idea and its researchers found that reading to dogs improved the skills and confidence of young readers.

When Sharon Chesley, president of the Umberhine Library’s board of trustees, mentioned that her granddaughter had taken part in a reading to dogs program at the Freeport Community Library, the library staff members in Richmond started planning how they could bring the program to their town.

Michelle Purington, who is a library aide, offered up the services of her dog, a Newfoundland, but she learned that a therapy dog was needed. That’s when the library approached Gail Balch, a patron of the library, and offered financial assistance to have her dog Lily certified as a therapy dog.

Lily the labradoodle, left, listens as Ryder Blake reads aloud from a book Thursday at Isaac F. Umberhine Public Library in Richmond. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

Before moving to Richmond, Balch had run a therapeutic horseback riding program in Rhode Island for nearly two decades. To be able to do that, Balch said, she took training and workshops and audited classes at the University of Rhode Island.

“My first priority was to do no harm,” she said.

Eventually, Balch relocated to Richmond with Lily, whom she had adopted from a breeder. That breeder had a number of dogs, and among them was a silver wraith of dog with a white blaze on her chest. Because of that blaze and the lilies that were in season, Balch named her Lily.

At first, the dog was timid around people and her behavior showed that she had not been socialized. While her house was being built, Balch would bring Lily into Richmond for walks. One day, as they were passing Richmond Elder Care, an assisted living facility, Lily practically dragged her owner inside the facility.

“She seemed to know the people there needed her,” Balch said.

Lily hopped onto the bed of a woman who was delighted to see her, and Balch remembers thinking, “I feed you, and you don’t jump onto my bed.”

She said Lily, who is the size of a standard poodle, is a good fit for the program. While the canine has overcome her fear, she doesn’t rush up to people and she doesn’t jump on them. When greeting the young readers, Lily accepts their friendly overtures and sits patiently through their stories.

Lily the labradoodle, left, gets petted by Sophie Moore on Thursday at Isaac F. Umberhine Public Library in Richmond. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

“I had horses most of my life,” Balch said earlier this week. “I had serious health problems when I was child. But when I was around animals, I felt better. I know what it’s like to be nervous kid who is having a tough time.”

On Thursday, Balch and Lily spent a little more than an hour with the children who had signed up for five 15-minute sessions  to read aloud.

Some, such as Purington’s younger son, Ben, 6, are just starting to read. Others, such as Moore or Ryder Blake, 8, who was not reading much just months ago, were able to complete the book of their choice for Lily.

Purington said she anticipates the program will spread by word of mouth in Richmond’s elementary school and that will drive parents to sign up their children. She said she hopes the sessions will continue through the school year, and she’s considering whether it might continue in the summer so that the children don’t lose ground with their reading skills. That will depend on the popularity of the program and Lily’s availability.

For Samantha Moore, who encourages Sophie to read outside her assigned reading for school to her and to their dogs at home, as well as a bottle baby ram lamb, the program is a hit.

“If there are slots available, we’ll come back,” she said.


Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ





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