|By Laura Kiernan
On a Wednesday afternoon at the Hopkinton Town Library, you may find Ben seated on a couch, listening attentively as a youngster reads to him from Dr. Seuss or Winnie the Pooh. The library director, Donna Dunlop, says Ben is a "friendly ear," especially for new readers who may be unsure about their reading skills - they get to practice and Ben is never critical. Ben is a "sweet little guy" and the library patrons, young and old, love to have him around, Ms. Dunlop said. He is very well-behaved.
Ben is a 10-year-old Shetland Sheepdog and his owner is Lorraine Albanese who works in the judicial education department at the Administrative Office of the Courts. Ben is part of a "Tail Waggin' Tutors" program from Therapy Dogs International, Inc. (TDI) which is designed to encourage kids, at all levels, to visit the library and work on their reading skills. Having a beautifully groomed Sheltie lying beside you, listening to every word, makes it fun.
Lorraine has been involved with dog showing, training, and drill team for over 35 years, and has been doing "sheltie rescue" for 12 years. Ben was one of the dogs that was surrendered to her and she decided to keep him for therapy work. When he arrived at their home, Lorraine said, Ben was extremely well behaved, contrary to what his past owners had told her, and looked, well, "like something the cat brought it." His spirits were also very low.
The Albanese family decided to use their experience with obedience training to take Ben on a path far from the dog show circuit. Lorraine , her husband Frank, and their daughter Amber were already certified by Therapy Dogs International, Inc. to train and handle their therapy dogs for visits to nursing homes, hospitals and other locations - including libraries - where a dog's undivided attention can be a great source of security and confidence for those who need it. That's the course they took with Ben, and it was all the pedigree he ever needed for what turned out to be his mission in life, making people feel confident and secure, whether its little ones in the town library, elderly folks in a nursing home or hospital patients. Ben is a loyal, non-judgmental companion, which makes him just about as valuable as he can be to the people who need his encouragement and support.
When Ben is "working" Lorraine says, he is totally in control - which is the way a TDI dog is trained to be. He will stay, even when his owner leaves the room. He is not afraid of people on crutches or in wheelchairs. Unfamiliar smells and sudden noises don't set him off.
Maintaining such a high level of self-control takes a lot out of a dog, Lorraine said, so Ben stays only a couple of hours at the assisted living facility - he regularly visits Woodcrest Village in New London. The elderly are reminded of dogs that they've had in their past and the joyful memories it brings. Residents often look forward to the dogs visit and they cherish the moments they spend together.
Lorraine says that visits to a hospital with Ben can be extremely varied from patient to patient. Some patients may be light-hearted and crack jokes or tell her about the dog they have at home. Others become quite emotional during their visit with Ben whose gentle nature is a source of comfort and reassurance. Staff members and visitors look forward to Ben's visits as well.
At the Hopkinton Library, children read to Ben for about 10 minutes each. Lorraine is at his side. "I just sit there. I don't correct or help the children with their reading, that's not my job," Lorraine said. "Their parents are there and when they are trying to sound out a word their parents will help them. I am just there to direct Ben with commands." A whole range of readers sit down with Ben on each visit, reading books they have chosen themselves. The children who are too young to read make up stories using pop-up books. An elderly gentleman comes by and reads Greek mythology to Ben.
"He's a fabulous dog," said library director Donna Dunlop.
Lorraine Albanese and Ben at the Hopkinton Town Library
Lorraine Albanese is also a certified TDI evaluator. For more information about therapy dogs International, go to their website at http://www.tdi-dog.org/Default.aspx .