PLANT CITY — When Kaleb French first visited therapy dog Bonnie at the library, he was too shy to read aloud to her. Instead, his mother read to the dog. Eventually, he began whispering the words to her.
Now, the 7-year-old’s voice echoes through the children’s section of the Bruton Memorial Library in Plant City with confidence. Bonnie, an 8-year-old Shih Tzu, lies on her back next to the boy, quietly listening as he rubs her belly.
Kaleb, who is homeschooled, began reading to Bonnie when he was 4 years old. His mother knew her son was a strong reader, but getting him to read aloud outside the confines of their Plant City home was somewhat of a challenge.
"I wouldn’t call him shy, but he’s observant. He takes everything in and then he’ll adjust to the situation," his mother, Veronika French said. "I would bring him [to Bonnie] because no one was really listening to him. No one was listening but the dog. So, he built up his confidence. He just kept reading and reading and reading and getting better."
Bonnie visits the Bruton Memorial Library every Wednesday where children can read to her for an hour. The Shih Tzu and her owner, Cassandra Banning are a staple at the library, where they’ve helped children ages 3 to 8 for five years to build reading skills and confidence in public speaking.
"That’s what being with the therapy dog does. It just builds up his confidence and he doesn’t even realize that ‘hey, there are other people listening to me,’" Veronika French said.
Banning said she and Bonnie also work with children who suffer from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or Tourette syndrome or have a general fear of dogs.
"She’s so calm and sweet and the kids just love reading to her," said Tonda Morris, director of the Bruton Memorial Library. "They just feel safe to read to her. Maybe in school, they’re embarrassed or they’re shy, but here it’s a safe place to read aloud."
Dawn Sullivan of Plant City recently began bringing her 3-year-old daughter Grace to read to Bonnie as a way to work on her reading skills and vocabulary before she starts kindergarten.
"I wanted to find a way to make it more fun to her by reading to a dog," Sullivan said.
Banning was inspired to have Bonnie trained through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, an international organization with about 15,000 registered therapy dogs on its roster, after seeing her neighbor’s Shih Tzu work as a therapy dog. To be registered, Bonnie had to undergo several rounds of testing and observation and as well as training classes. She received a Canine Good Citizen honor, the gold standard of behavior for dogs, through the American Kennel Club.
"They want to see that not only is the dog obedient and well-managed, but how do you and the dog act together? Are you a good team?" Banning said.
Bonnie has also been visiting patients and staff for five years at South Florida Baptist Hospital, where sometimes the simple act of petting the Shih Tzu is enough to combat stress and anxiety. And Bonnie enjoys her work, Banning said. She’s one of about nine dogs that visit the hospital on a regular basis.
"When I put my volunteer uniform on she’s waiting for me at the door," Banning said.
In addition, Bonnie travels to Hillsborough Community College’s Plant City campus during exam weeks where students can pet her and destress. She also participates in the Great American Teach-In, an annual event to celebrate American Education Week.
Bonnie the therapy dog is available to children every Wednesday from 4 to 5 p.m. at the Burton Memorial Library, 302 McLendon St., Plant City.
Contact Crystal Owens at [email protected]