A canine reading partner helps children learn


“When I first saw Sara Wilcox on her big, shiny horse, I was blown away,” Sophia Higgins read, her legs tucked under her as she sat in the public library’s reading teepee of Universal City.

The 11-year-old, who loves all things horse, was ironically reading a book called ‘Everything But Horse’ by author Holly Hobbie.

“I loved visiting these horses when they were alone in their pastures,” Higgins recites aloud. Sitting next to her is 9-year-old Jack, who seems to be taking it all in as Higgins turns the page. “The whole beautiful scene was like a movie. I saw myself rolling next to her, ”she continues.

Jack, meanwhile, sat calm and still, keeping an eye on his owner, who had treats for him for being such a good dog.

Jack is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and participates in the San Antonio PAWS For Service program with his owner, Mary Ann Vaaler. He spent several hours with readers as they flipped through the pages and read page after page to Jack, who is trained to sit next to day visitors and soak it all up.

Jack never barks or whines, but always keeps a watchful eye on Vaaler as the youngsters enter the room, collapse on the cushion under the teepee frame, and begin reading to him.

PAWS For Service began as an outreach program in 1995 and has grown into an organization with a broad footprint in the San Antonio area, with thousands of people served each year. PAWS for Service trains, certifies and places therapy dog ​​teams throughout the greater San Antonio area.

Vaaler started the program in 2015 with Honey Bunch, also a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

“We started going to retirement homes, the army retirement community,” Vaaler said. “We have worked with the READ program, which is Reading Education Assistance Dog, where we work with young children who are behind in their reading. They come in and just read to a dog.

The next to visit and read to Jack was four-year-old Michael Alvarado. With a 1.5 year old Chow-mix at home, Michael was comfortable with Jack. Vaaler turned the pages of his book, “Daddy, Daddy and Me,” a random selection from library shelves before entering the library’s reading room.

Jack started in the PAWS For Service program several years ago, Vaaler said. Dogs must be two years old to participate in the PAWS training program, which helps teach and train the animal and its owner what to do if they are going to a nursing home, school or special event.

“Dogs must have obedience training, so you can apply for PAWS service,” Vaaler said. “Jack started when he was just over two years old, there have to be two of them to go through the PAWS training program. Jack probably (did) 300 visits during that time.

Honey Bunch had 500 hits before it died last year. “You have to make 50 visits a year (in PAWS). But we do more than that. We will probably make 100 visits before the end of the year.

Sisters Hope, 4, and Raylynn Sparks, 6, from Windcrest were at the library to take part in an arts and crafts event on Saturday when their mother, Monica Sparks, saw the sign-up clipboard “Reading with Jack” on a table in the library.

Raylynn began reading her chosen book, “Pete The Cat: Making New Friends,” while Hope remained fully focused on Jack and his calm demeanor at his feet. A quick rub on the head or two put a smile on young Hope’s face as Raylynn read aloud: ‘Meet secret agent Meow, also known as Pete. Pete the cat.

The two stayed in the plush teepee for about four or five minutes as Jack sat, obedient, listening, and concentrating on Vaaler.

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