Every Tuesday Debbi Cole gets Isabelle all spruced up, puts the red working vest on her, and the two go to the Coastal Branch Library.
Isabelle does not seem to mind working. If she lays down quietly by a young person and dutifully stays still and quiet while being read to and petted, she gets a treat.
What a deal!
Isabelle is a large, fluffy white standard poodle, and the young readers love her. She is a therapy dog — a reading therapy dog — and it is her job to help soothe any anxiety a child may feel about reading, and at the same time, encourage enthusiasm for reading. Amazingly, it works.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Joshua Powers read to Isabelle and stroked her soft coat as he read, and as she listened quietly. It was Joshua's first time, and from his obvious enjoyment, it's doubtful it will be his last.
"I wanted to do this because it makes you smarter," said Joshua. "I'd rather read to a dog while petting it."
Joshua's mother, Leigh, said she said she thinks the addition of the dog helps facilitate reading.
"It's more interesting and it makes them (child) more confident with animals to see a big dog calm," she said.
Next in line to read after Joshua was second-grader Tiffany Orr. Her father, James, said Tiffany is already above her reading level and this is a just a tool to keep her engaged.
"Any opportunity to keep her excited about reading," he said.
The Orrs don't have a pet at home, and Tiffany said she thinks reading to a dog is pretty cool.
"Maybe the dog understands," she said.
Isabelle is a 13-year-old retired champion show dog. She became certified as a therapy reading dog in Orlando when she was 7. She and Debbi moved to Santa Rosa Beach four years ago and started the Tail Waggin' Tutors program at the Coastal Branch Library last spring.
Cole said there is a waiting list of names of children wanting to sign up for the program in Orlando, but getting started here has been a slower go.
"Studies show it lowers blood pressure in the child when it is done one-on-one in a quiet place. It helps the shy child come out of his or her shell, and inspires interest in the slow reader," she said.
In addition, it even inspires hygiene in a child.
"We tell the children that this is a special day for the dog and she spends time getting ready to come see them. We give the dog a bath, brush her hair and teeth, and groom her nails. Knowing this, it inspires the child to do the same," said Cole.
Isabelle knows when she is working, said Cole, and she knows to be patient and adjust to situations. She senses how much interaction to give.
"Not every dog can do it," she said. "She has been through puppy charm, agility, and obedience training."
When the next child arrives, Isabelle greets, then dutifully lays down beside the child when they sit down with their chosen book.