Chilliwack collie offers a willing ear for young readers

Popular St. John Ambulance program, Paws 4 Stories, starts at Yarrow Library on Oct. 12.

Sue Unwin reads to Taylah

Sue Unwin reads to Taylah

Five-year-old Taylah bursts into her Sardis living room, greeting her visitors with a few quiet yelps and puppy growls. She nuzzles in gently with her long brown snout, and does a fair bit of tail wagging and prancing about.

The rough coat collie is unabashedly happy to meet people, primed to play, and very eager to communicate.

“She will want to talk a bit,” her owner Sue Unwin says, smiling. “But she will calm down.”

Sure enough, after a few minutes of friendly introductions Sue pulls out Taylah’s cue to settle down. She’s holding the white bandana Taylah wears around her neck while she’s working as a St. John Ambulance trained therapy dog.

The second she sees it, the naturally-boisterous Taylah becomes poised, composed, patient. She searches Sue’s face for instructions. She’s almost completely still, and has even stopped “talking.”

It’s clear she knows it’s time for a therapy session. And when Sue lays down a St. John “Paws 4 Stories” blanket on their living room floor, Taylah curls up on it expectantly.

Sue pulls out a book, tells Taylah a story, and Taylah listens intently.

This is just how a Paws 4 Stories session would take place, a program that will begin at Yarrow Library next week. And it’s easy to see how therapeutic this setting would be for an early reader, especially one who would normally be too shy to sound out difficult or new words in front of a classroom.

Paws 4 Stories is not a new program, but Taylah is the first dog in Chilliwack to be trained for it.

It’s a program that’s been established in a few libraries around the province. Yarrow’s library supervisor, Wanda Lindsey, was intrigued by the program. Sue heard about it and was also intrigued.

“I love reading. She loves children,” Sue said. “And I wanted to encourage kids to read.”

The program starts up on Oct. 12, and is a free, registered program. Children can sign up for 20-minute time slots every Wednesday from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. The program is designed to assist in helping to improve the reading skills of children by having them read to a therapy dog.

Taylah’s already had experience with young ones.

Over the past few weeks, she has been making trips to the Chilliwack General Hospital’s new pediatric unit to comfort young patients who are being observed or are awaiting transportation to Children’s Hospital.

Last week, she had the chance to comfort a two-year-old boy who was terribly frightened to be there.

“He was very upset,” Sue says. “She just calmed him right down.”

And Taylah loves her work, Sue adds. Prior to training to work with children, Taylah had already become an important part of therapy sessions at the Bradley Centre next to the hospital, comforting residents and providing warmth and sensory exploration for dementia patients.

“She was born to do this,” Sue says. “She’s done a lot of special things there.”

But even those with a natural talent need careful training. And Taylah has been through rigorous training with St. John.

First, she was trained to be a therapy dog. Training includes testing dogs in sessions that mimic a busy hospital-style environment, with people being pushed in wheelchairs, loud noises, and lots of human interaction.

Training to work with children is much the same, but with volunteer children creating environments that could spook some dogs.

Not Taylah. She takes everything in stride.

“Dogs are non-threatening, non-judgmental,” Sue says. “If they’re struggling or stumbling, Taylah won’t care. It’s just one on one.”

Of course, Sue will be there as well. She and Taylah must stay connected at the leash through any St. John therapy sessions. But Sue is happy to sit back and watch, and reward Taylah when she’s done, with a homemade, healthy biscuit and a well-deserved nap.

“I am incredibly proud,” Sue says. “She seems to know what to do, she’s very special.”

To sign your child up for a Paws 4 Stories session with Taylah, contact the Yarrow Library at 604-823-4664.