Out of the doghouse and into the library

Purdy, a Reading Education Assistance Dog, gets ready to get local kids reading. He lends an open ear at both the Kingston and Markesan libraries. submitted photo

by Ariana Hones

“Whenever we get ready to go out, I get her bag and she knows. She jumps on the couch, sits and waits.”

Purdy, the dog of Michelle and Ted MacHugo of Kingston, knows when it is time to go read to the local youth.

“We belong to the Lions of Therapy Dogs,” Michelle said. “We have a special bandana and vest for her to wear, as well as a patch for one year of service and five years of service. We have been doing this for six years now, so Purdy is a pro.”

Although Purdy had a rough start in her first year of life, moving from a kennel in Indiana to one in Wisconsin, she has since found a home with the MacHugo family.

“When I went to the kennel looking for a new dog, I walked by her and she just came up and looked at me,” Michelle said. “I thought ‘Oh my gosh she is beautiful.’ Then she placed her head in my lap … I always say, Purdy picked me.”

At first Purdy didn’t know anything about what it meant to live with a family.

“She had never been in a car or even up stairs,” Michelle said.

Although there was a period of adjusting to life with people, Michelle always knew that Purdy was a well-mannered pup.

However, the idea to get her trained as a therapy dog didn’t occur until Ted’s mother moved in with them.

“When she came to live with us, Purdy was so gentle and so good,” Michelle said. “I thought, maybe she would make a good therapy dog.”

This idea set Purdy and Michelle off on a two-year long path to getting trained at obedience classes and finally getting tested as a therapy dog and handler.

After receiving certification as a therapy dog, Purdy spent time at assisted living com-munities and nursing homes, where she would sit with community members and keep them company.

While Purdy loved visiting the retirement community, MacHugo knew that Purdy’s deep joy laid in being with young people.

Michelle heard about the READ (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program and wanted to test Purdy’s abilities on a forgiving audience so she asked her neighbors for some help.

“There are four boys that live down the street and I thought maybe we can try reading with them and we did,” she said. “Purdy was so good.”

A packet of technical information and written test taken by Michelle later, and Purdy was a certified READ dog.

Then, Michelle gained permission from the Kingston Mill Pond Public Library, Markesan Public Library and Markesan School District to bring Purdy in as a READ dog.

As there are no other READ animals in the area, Michelle saw the benefit of getting local youth to read with Purdy.

“There is a huge difference in the kids when Purdy is there,” she said. “The mission of the program is to enhance the quality of life through the human and animal bond.

She added that kids with lower self-esteem about reading feel more comfortable and can focus better with an animal present.

Interacting with animals also provides relaxation, lowers blood pressure and is less intimidating.

“Purdy isn’t going to laugh at them,” Michelle said. “She is going to lay there and she is going to listen. The kids have a positive experience because Purdy isn’t going to criticize them.”

In Markesan, Purdy reads with third to fifth graders once a week during the school year for 15 minutes each.

Michelle told one story of how transformative the experience can be for kids.

“The first year we started, we had a boy and he wanted to do the program but he was scared of dogs,” she recalled. “So he started out by reading on the other side of the room in the corner and he would read and ask lots of questions. And each time he would get a little closer to Purdy. By the end of the year, he was sitting right next to her and just loved her. The next year he came back and had gotten his own dog.

It is not just about the reading, it is about interacting with animals,” Michelle added.

When Purdy and Michelle aren’t at school, they are reading weekly during the school year at the Kingston library or at the Markesan library during the summer.

“I hope that people can realize how great these programs are and how much of a difference they can make.”

One book and kid at a time, the work of Purdy and Michelle show literacy can be the best taught trick of a lifetime.