Canine reading partner helps children learn

“When I first saw Sara Wilcox on her tall, glossy horse, I was swept away,” Sophia Higgins read, legs folded under her as she sat in the reading tepee in the Universal City Public Library.

The 11-year-old, who loves everything about horses, ironically was reading a book titled “Everything But The Horse” by author Holly Hobbie.

“I loved to visit those horses when they were alone in their pastures,” Higgins recites aloud. Sitting beside her is Jack, 9, who seems to be taking it all in as Higgins turns the page. “The whole beautiful scene was like a movie. I could see myself riding beside her,” she continues.

Jack, meanwhile, sat calm and motionless, keeping an eye on his owner, who had treats to offer him for being such a good dog.

Jack is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and a participant in the San Antonio PAWS For Service program with his owner, Mary Ann Vaaler. He has spent many an hour with readers as they thumb through pages and read page after page to Jack, who is trained to sit beside that day’s visitors and soak it all in.

Jack never barks or whines, but always keeps a close eye on Vaaler as youngsters enter the room, flop down on the cushion beneath the tepee’s frame, and begin to read to him.

PAWS For Service started as an outreach program in 1995 and has grown into an organization with a wide footprint in the San Antonio area, with thousands of people served each year. PAWS for Service trains, certifies and places therapy dog teams throughout the greater San Antonio area.

Vaaler started with the program in 2015 with Honey Bunch, also a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

“We started going to nursing homes, the Army Retirement Community,” Vaaler said. “We worked with the READ program, which is Reading Education Assistance Dog, where we work with young children who are behind in their reading. They come in and basically just read to a dog.”

Next in to visit and read to Jack was four-year-old Michael Alvarado. With a Chow-mix 1½-year old at home, Michael was comfortable around Jack. Vaaler turned the pages of his book, “Daddy, Papa and Me,” a random library shelf selection before entering the library reading room.

Jack started in the PAWS For Service program several years ago, Vaaler said. Dogs have to be two years old to enter the PAWS training program, which helps teach and train the pet and its owner what to do if they are going to a nursing home, a school, or a special event.

“Dogs have to have obedience training, then you can apply to the PAWS Service,” Vaaler said. “Jack started when he was a little over two, they have to be two to go into the training program at PAWS. Jack has probably (made) 300 visits in that time.”

Honey Bunch had 500 visits before she died last year. “You have to make 50 visits a year (in PAWS). But we do more than that. We’ll probably make 100 visits before the year is through.”

Sisters Hope, 4, and Raylynn Sparks, 6, of Windcrest were at the library participating in a Saturday arts and crafts event when their mother, Monica Sparks, saw the “Reading With Jack” sign-up clipboard on a library table.

Raylynn began to read from her chosen book, “Pete The Cat: Making New Friends” while Hope remained focused entirely on Jack and his calm demeanor at her feet. A quick rub on the head or two put a smile on young Hope’s face as Raylynn read aloud: “Meet Secret Agent Meow, also known as Pete. Pete The Cat.”

The two stayed in the cushiony tepee for about four or five minutes as Jack sat, obedient, listening and focusing on Vaaler.

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