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Reading with a furry friend

Ernie the wheaten terrier inspires kids to read and write

News Photo by Meakalia Previch-Liu Ernie and Gillett look over the artwork together.

ROGERS CITY — “He’s so cute!” said Sophie Benzer, as she took a seat on the floor next to Ernie with her book in hand.

It’s a common response Ernie, a wheaten terrier, received when children walked into the Presque Isle District Library after school earlier this month.

Ernie works as the reading education assistance dog at the library, part of a program to improve children’s reading and communication skills by reading to an animal.

Stephanie Gillett, Ernie’s owner, started bringing him to the Presque Isle library in mid-February, where he typically met around four to five kids daily.

“Reading is so important,” Gillett said. “It’s the foundation of everything that you do from that point forward. You’ve got your math skills, your reading skills, and everything is built off of that.”

News Photo by Meakalia Previch-Liu Ernie sits across from his owner, Stephanie Gillett, waiting for her next command on March 10. Ernie went through Canine Good Citizen training and is especially well-behaved in public because of it. Besides reading with children, he loves receiving treats after heeding a command.

“It’s for children who may not have that ease and comfort in reading with other classmates,” Anne Belanger, program director at Presque Isle District Library, said. “This is a way for them to not feel judged by others and it’s an opportunity for them to just feel comfortable reading.”

All libraries are closed to in response to the coronavirus outbreak, but Gillett said Ernie will be back to continue reading with kids when libraries reopen.

“Ernie already misses his reading gig,” Gillett said.

MEET ERNIE

Gillett researched the breed very carefully, as both she and her husband are allergic to dogs. They discovered the wheaten terrier through a reputable American Kennel Club breeder in Howell. It made a great pick for the Gillett family. The breed was the right size, had a good disposition, and did not shed — the perfect combination for minimizing allergies.

News Photo by Meakalia Previch-Liu Sophie Benzer locks eyes with Ernie the reading education assistance dog on March 10 at the Presque Isle District Library. Benzer, who stopped by the library that day with her three sisters and mother, said reading with a dog near her makes everything more fun.

Since Ernie’s adoption at 12 weeks old, the Gilletts have adopted another dog, Rosie. She is a border collie mix and the stay-at-home younger sister in the family.

Ernie just turned 6 years old in December.

“He loves to chew, but he’s very good about not chewing my shoes,” Gillett said. “He has his own toys. He likes to walk, he likes to do all the things that dogs love to do — and he loves people and loves other dogs, but he definitely loves children.”

HOW IT ALL STARTED

Ernie went through the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen training, a certification that helps teach dogs to behave well in public. Gillett said the person who certified him was impressed with his demeanor and his abilities to do things that a therapy dog does automatically.

News Photo by Meakalia Previch-Liu Stephanie Gillett holds one of the many art pieces drawn for Ernie on March 10 at the Presque Isle District Library. This particular drawing came from a child who participated in the Community Action Network program in Ann Arbor.

Ernie’s natural ability pushed Gillett to test the waters, and she agreed in 2018 to have him read with kids through an Ann Arbor program called Community Action Network. The organization aims to help children in financially underserved communities with educational programs. The kids, ranging from 6 to 12 years old, would practice their reading and writing skills, with Ernie as their inspiration.

Gillett and Ernie have since branched out. They have made a point to visit places like assisted living homes, where he can spread a little sunshine and joy in older communities, too.

Children and adults alike will do a lot of things to engage and be near a dog, Gillett said, and Ernie happens to gravitate to the people who need him most.

“I’ve had people, while their children are playing and doing other stuff, come tell me all of their problems while they’re petting the dog,” she said. “Or Ernie will come over and sit with them. I had one lady say, ‘He must know that I just put my dog down and I’m really sad about it.’ They want to tell their stories, because they want to have time to interact with the dog and they feel like they have to talk to me while they do it. It’s kind of therapeutic for them. And, for the kids, it helps them with all these things they need to practice.”

Ernie helps incentivize kids around him to read in different ways, giving them something to look forward to if they put in the work.

News Photo by Meakalia Previch-Liu Ernie poses at the Presque Isle District Library on March 10.

“They know, if they’re done reading, they can write Ernie a note, or draw a picture of him, or just practice some of the skills that they need practice on,” she said.

BEYOND ROGERS CITY

The Presque Isle District Library system has five branches, located in Rogers City, Grand Lake, Millersburg, Onaway, and Posen. Gillett hopes to take Ernie on tour in the future to the various branches. The team also wants to help with writing programs at the local libraries and schools.

Gillett said she believes the foundation of a child’s education is the basis for how successful he or she is in the future.

“So getting these reading skills down now to develop an enjoyment around reading — and to understand it’s something that can take you away to different places — is hugely important, and I’m happy to be part of efforts to drive that,” Gillett said.

A writer and avid reader herself, Gillett is in the midst of putting together a children’s book that she hopes to self-publish this year. The book would be used as a tool to get kids excited about reading and would highlight how kids read with Ernie.

“It’ll just be the adventure of a reader and Ernie at the library and going on that mental adventure that they take when they read a book,” she said.

Gillett said parents should inspire their children’s fantasies as a way to encourage them to read and to find examples in the everyday hobbies kids like to do, such as video games, because everything is about telling or listening to a story.

“The world is based on storytelling,” she said. “Take advantage of opportunities like reading with a dog, where you get to sit and enjoy the company of a really cute mutt with some bad breath who wants to listen to you and get petted while you read.”

Meakalia Previch-Liu can be reached at 989-989-358-5680 or mprevich-liu@thealpenanews.com.

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