On a quiet Wednesday afternoon in the cosy library at East Kensington Heritage School in Surrey, a 210-pound English mastiff named Leroy is draped across the floor, snoring loudly. A boy curled up by his hefty haunch reads out loud from a storybook.
Close at hand, Leroy’s handler, B.J. Fleetham, offers quiet prompts when the human reader hesitates.
The boy, Kaylem Mercer, is in Grade 1, and doesn’t seem to mind that his furry companion might be drifting off. Leroy’s calm, contented bulk is reassuring.
Seconds later, Leroy shifts position and starts pawing at the book, eager for a pat or a cuddle.
Kaylem’s single-minded focus is admirable. Unfamiliar words are sounded out, and the story proceeds.
In spite of his bulk, Leroy is practically still a puppy. But at just 14 months, he’s only days away from formally certifying as a registered therapy dog.
Fleetham, his handler, lives on rural acreage in Cloverdale and has five therapy dogs: there’s Chewie, a 9-and a-half-year-old English mastiff, Special Agent Magee, a 17-month-old bloodhound, Liam, a gangly Irish wolfhound, and Leroy, who today is sprawled across the library floor like an elastic, thick-waisted pony.
He shifts position as the next child wordlessly enters the library, grabs a book, plunks down on a blanket, and starts reading.
Once a week, Fleetham brings one of her therapy dogs to read with a handful of students at East Kensington Heritage School, a small elementary school (just 43 students) at 2795 184 Street.
Every child is different, says Fleetham. Some read facing the dog. Others lie on the floor, leaning back, using the dog as a cushion.
The dog’s presence seems to help the children focus.
“It helps me read without things that distract me,” Grade 2 student Otto Tompe says, reaching over to pet Leroy.
“It’s fun. He’s fuzzy,” he smiles.
Otto’s mom, Shari, is seated nearby. What does she make of this?
“Anything that keeps him focused long enough to get through a book, that’s wonderful,” she said, adding Otto looks forward to his Wednesday sessions.
“It’s just being focused in a positive atmosphere where he wants to carry on,” she said. “It’s wonderful.”
According to Kindergarten/Grade 1 teacher Angie Witzel, the children benefit from reading to someone who is supportive and won’t criticize them.
“It’s that freedom to just read,” she said, adding it’s also a novelty, and works as a positive reward.
Reading isn’t the only reason Fleetham and her therapy dogs have been invited to the school.
“It’s also for kids without pets, who can learn not to be fearful of dogs,” Witzel said.
The one-on-one sessions also seem to benefit a student who has a rare genetic disorder that makes her shy around dogs, but also prone to verbal outbursts.
When school’s out, Fleetham and her stable of therapy dogs guest star at summer camps for the BC SPCA, teaching children how to avoid getting bitten by dogs, among other tips.