- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 27, 2014

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) - For the past few years, Morgan’s and Samantha’s big brown eyes and wagging tails have greeted young readers at the Allen County Public Library downtown.

But on Thursday, the two retrievers and their handlers will be present in the library for one last time at a retirement party thrown in their honor by the “Paws to Read” program. The program pairs volunteers and their therapy dogs with young or tentative readers to help encourage reading skills, particularly reading out loud.

Morgan, a 9-year-old black Labrador retriever, and Samantha, an 11-year-old golden retriever, have been read to by children for years. Always non-judgmental, they have patiently listened as new readers stumbled over sentences and shy readers learned to come out of their shells.

“It’s easier to read to a dog than it is sometimes to other family members,” Miriam Rose, a children’s services librarian, told The Journal Gazette (https://bit.ly/1inNWze ).

Both Morgan and Samantha are licensed therapy dogs, chosen and trained for their demeanor.

The decision to retire Morgan seemed evident to her handler, Mary Bastrass, who is in her 50s.

While Bastrass would like to continue with the program a bit longer, it seemed that Morgan, who has been in the program since 2009, had grown weary of the work, she said.

One of Morgan’s typical behaviors when a child would read to him was to plop his silky black head in the reader’s lap as he was read to.

But over the past few months, Morgan did that less frequently and seemed more distant and less engaged with the children, Bastrass said.

“That’s how I knew,” she said.

Bastrass remembered about 10 years ago being in the hospital and visited by some therapy dogs at the end of their long day in the building.

She said they were not too happy to be there and offered little in the way of therapy or wagging tails.

“I don’t know that the people realized they weren’t helping me any,” she said. “I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind.”

Bastrass will use Morgan in other ways, most likely as a “neutral dog” to be used to help evaluate potential therapy dogs for their potential for the work.

Samantha’s handler, 76-year-old Karen Junk, said the older golden has had some problems with her hind legs. Even though she’s better now, Junk said she’d like to have time to do some other things with her.

“I just want to walk her and do things like that,” Junk said. “I want to have a little more time with her.”

Samantha has been helping kids read since 2005. Before that, Junk took her to Easter Seals Arc of Northeast Indiana.

“She’s a great dog,” Junk said. “She is really good.”

The two travel together, and Junk said she hopes to make some trips out West - to see her son and other family members - with Samantha in tow.

Rose said the library is always looking for new dogs and volunteers to participate in the program.

“(The handlers) see the benefit for kids and families,” Rose said. “They see a lot of people who come back year after year.”

When the kids and families come back, though, in the future, it won’t be Morgan or Samantha there to greet them.

Kay Anderson with PAWS - Pets Assisting Well-being and Success, the nonprofit organization that helps place therapy dogs with area organizations and schools - said two new teams will be put in the library to help with the program.

But she stressed the work of Morgan, Samantha and their human handlers.

“They were two very great, skilled handlers, and their dogs were very nice dogs.”


Information from: The Journal Gazette, https://www.journalgazette.net

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