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This therapy dog knows how to work a room By Ashley Wahl
Maggie May is a born enchanter. With eyes
like polished amber and hair white as snow, there is something bewitching — perhaps even mystical — about her appearance. But what renders her utterly magnetic is her poise and gentle nature. When Maggie May enters a room, she brightens it.
“She’s a love sponge,” says Dorothy Mildenberg of the white golden retriever named, of course, for the Rod Stewart song. Maggie is a certified therapy dog who, with her owner, Dorothy, has been working as a Canines for Literacy mentor for five years. To see her saunter through a crowd is like watching a field of daffodils open one by one. “She knows how to work a room,” says Dorothy. She also knows when it’s time to sit and listen. Maggie and Dorothy are a team.
“My mom’s friend says I’m an animal whisperer,” says Carly. Maggie sits quietly by her side.
Six-year-old Sonia Rose sinks into a bean bag chair with an illustrated book about a puppy named Biscuit. Maggie snuggles up beside her as she reads, but the biscuit that Maggie is most excited about is the one she’ll get when Sonia finishes the story. She waits patiently. “We have a special routine we go through after we’ve read a book,” explains Dorothy, who prompts Maggie to sit in the corner while Sonia hides. Treat in hand, Sonia crouches behind a Seussian chair — the room’s only accent piece. When given the signal, Maggie finds her right away. “Remember, we put the biscuit on our hand like a dinner plate so we never get our fingers pinched,” says Dorothy. “Yes, that’s the way. Now let’s get you a hand wipe.”
On a bright but cold Wednesday afternoon, Dorothy and Maggie are seated in a spartan room at Northeast Regional Library, the electromagnetic hum of a fluorescent bulb sure and steady in the background. When Billy arrives, Maggie stands to greet him. “She likes to lay on my feet,” explains Billy, who beams as he walks toward the blue plastic chair beside Dorothy, hugging tight a copy of Rusty Staub’s Few and Chosen: Defining Mets Greatness Across the Eras. As he gets settled, Maggie plops down and curls into a ball, her body warm against Billy’s sneakers. “I like that,” he says, his laugh as pure as a child’s. At 50, Billy is not your average Canines for Literacy pupil, but he is here for the same reason — to improve his reading skills. He picks up where they left off last week, delving into a passage about Casey Stengel, the left-handed Hall of Famer who, before baseball, dreamed of becoming a dentist. Maggie closes her eyes. Billy’s speech is sure and steady, but when he comes across something interesting — like how Davey Johnson won three Golden Glove Awards and made the All-Star team four times — he looks up at Dorothy and says, “That’s great.” Maggie shifts, lets him know she’s listening too.
Therapy dogs help reduce Dorothy, Maggie May and Sonia one’s blood pressure and heart rate. When Carly, 14, arrives for her reading appointment, she seems a bit nervous. But get her talking about animals — Maggie or her own dog, Bear-Bear — and she lights up. The Art & Soul of Wilmington
When Paul and his little brother Joel cozy up beside Maggie on the floor, they vaguely resemble a scene from The Neverending Story. Paul is reading a book about a groundhog who comes down with the flu on February 1. “You need hot clover soup and bed rest for two days.” “How many?” asked Groundhog. “Two, two,” hooted Dr. Owl.
Dorothy gently interrupts. “Let’s go back and read that like an owl would say it,” she says. “Like it would say Hoot! Hoot!” “Two! Two!” Paul is working on the art of inflection, but what he is really good at is predicting the book’s resolution — who gets the job as substitute groundhog. Armadillo. “I read the last page first,” he admits. Midway through the book, Maggie slumps onto her side, pushing her back into Paul as she stretches out her legs. The boy takes the cue, and though he never stops reading, he begins petting her neck, working his fingers through her ivory locks the way one might squish into a bowl of dough. Maggie neither whines nor wags. A good teacher knows that a reader must stay focused. Armadillo sees his shadow, but spring is here — you can see it in the smiling faces of Maggie’s pupils. b
Paul, Maggie May and Joel
For more information about Canines for Service’s “Canines for Literacy” program or to make an appointment, call Northeast Regional Library at (910) 798-6373 or Myrtle Grove Library at (910) 798-6393. To learn about Canines for Service, visit www.caninesforservice.org. Our spy, senior editor Ashley Wahl, is prone to wander. March 2015 •
The Art & Soul of Wilmington