Fur Angels: Four-legged friends help young readers build confidence

Photo by Sue Suchyta
Makenna Van Horn (left), 9, of Taylor reads “There’s a Sea in My Bedroom” to Vader (right), a silver miniature poodle and Fur Angel service dog at Taylor Community Library while her brother Preston Van Horn (second from left), 5, and Fur Angels volunteer Evelyn Morga of Dearborn listen.

Times-Herald Newspapers

TAYLOR – A flier inviting children to read to Fur Angels service dogs at Taylor Community Library July 25 encouraged reluctant reader Makenna Van Horn, 9, of Taylor, to try it out.

Her mother, Leslie Van Horn, is pleased with how the program encourages Makenna, a huge fan of animals, to read aloud.

“When she found out she could read to the animals, she said, ‘I need to do this, mom. I really need to do this because I love animals so much,’” Van Horn said. “So that inspired her to read more so she could read to the animals.”

Fur Angels director Jan Beregszaszy, who has been with the group since it was founded 1998 by the late Martha F. Hall, has been participating in pet therapy programs for 38 years.

“We realized long ago what the dogs do for people in general,” Beregszaszy said, “and the kids especially, they really are influenced by the sight of a dog. So if you can get them focused on that and then a book, all the better. Personally I think reading is probably the most important thing you can teach a child, because if they can read about it, they can teach themselves pretty much anything else there is.”

Beregszaszy currently has three service dogs and has had 40 during her lifetime. She said in addition to library visits, Fur Angels volunteers take their service dogs to schools, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, senior citizen complexes, day care centers, group homes, hospitals and hospice groups.

For more information, call Beregszaszy at 313-295-0295 or go to www.thefurangels.org.

She said potential service dogs are tested then trained, and the personality of a dog, and how well they work with their owner as a team, are important factors.

Library director Theresa Powers said the Fur Angel service dogs are therapeutic because they do not judge reluctant readers.

“The children love to read to them.” Powers said. “Children just love to cuddle and read, and the dogs love to listen.”

Powers said the Fur Angels have visited Taylor Community Library for four years during the summer and on Saturdays during the school year.

Since her retirement several years ago, Diane Schuler of Dearborn has volunteered with Fur Angels with her dog, Annie, a terrier mix. She said Annie went through basic and advanced obedience training, as well as personality and temperament testing to become a certified therapy dog.

“They have to be able to be relaxed around other people, lots of crowds, children making lots of noises, loud noises, wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and all of those sorts of things,” Schuler said. “They have to be able to be around other dogs that just sit in the same room with them and not get after each other and play.”

She said her 7-year-old grandson, Joshua Schuler of Dearborn, helped train Annie by reading to her, and that Annie loves all the attention and petting she receives as a service animal.

“She loves belly rubs,” Schuler said. “She’ll turn over right away on her back and have everybody pet her belly.”

Schuler said she is amazed how much more relaxed children are when they are reading to a dog. She said that while the adult volunteers will answer questions from the children, they do not interject and correct the young readers.

“We don’t criticize the words that they are reading wrong or any of that kind of thing,” Schuler said. “The kids become much more relaxed and are able to read better. It’s been proven that reading to dogs is very helpful for children.”

She said the volunteers find working with their therapy dogs to be fun and fulfilling.

“There’s so many rewarding things that we do, so many places we go,” Schuler said. “Sharing our dogs with other people to make them happy is unbeatable.”