Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and Pitot Tube Nelson may be one of the smallest. A four‑year‑old white Pomeranian dog weighing four pounds on a heavy day, Pitot has spent the last three years on Tuesdays listening to children read him stories and visiting patients in hospitals. He is part of the Arizona‑based Reading Tails registered animal therapy team and works alongside his housemate Broken the Cat and their owner, part‑time Eastport resident Deb Nelson.
As a veterinarian for 26 years, Nelson always had what she described as "good" animals as pets, but it was Pitot who proved to have the temperament and personality that garnered a referral from a technician. Nelson followed up. She went through training with Pitot and with her 14-pound cat, Broken, to become a registered animal therapy team with KPETS and the Intermountain Therapy Animals' international literacy program R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs). The team visits children in schools, participates in reading activities in libraries and visiting programs with hospitals and nursing homes.
Both animals have stories that children relate to, Nelson says. Pitot came to her veterinarian hospital when he was four months old and weighed less than two pounds. Broken the Cat came to the hospital as a kitten. He weighed less than a pound. Both required extensive help, including surgeries, to regain their health. Pitot's surgeries meant that all that fluffy white fur had to be shaved off. Keeping him warm required wrapping his body. The end result is a dog who "just thinks it's fun to have outfits on," Nelson says. "It's normal." Before taking him for his Tuesday reading sessions, he has a bath as part of the requirements to have a well‑groomed pet. When he's been "fluffed and buffed" and his therapy vest goes on, "he spins in circles -- he's so excited."
When Pitot sits down with a first or second grader at school, Nelson says, "I don't know how he understands what to do. He'll watch the kid. Put his paws on the page." The child reads to Pitot, Nelson explains. She'll often ask the child to explain or recap the storyline because Pitot hasn't understood something or maybe doesn't know what a word means.
Broken the Cat is a practiced hand, too. "He'll lie right on the book, which the kids think is so funny. Then he'll roll on his back and stretch his paw out and touch the kid." Both animals "really make the kids want to read. It's amazing how an animal will melt away problems." And that's the point, she says, to sharing Broken and Pitot's stories with children who may have their own set of worries getting in the way of learning. "Pitot is special needs. He has issues. The point is he works for others and doesn't worry about himself. He's always game for adventure. And that's why kids connect."
Silent Sidekicks in Maine
Danielle Ireland knows all about the positive reaction animals can bring to children and patients. She founded the nonprofit Silent Sidekicks, an animal therapy program based in Maine that works with the national organization Pet Partners. A little less than a year into development and her all‑volunteer nonprofit has 10 programs with eight teams, seven of whom stay in their local areas, and one of whom visits around the state and in parts of New Brunswick.
Morgan is Ireland's one‑year‑old golden retriever. "She started training as a puppy. At nine months she started hospital visits." Morgan would be the envy of many a nonprofit with almost 90 volunteer hours under her collar so far. But like Broken the Cat's entry into animal therapy at middle‑age, training doesn't have to begin when an animal is very young, says Ireland. "Some older dogs are wonderful. A lot of them already have the skills that would allow them to pass [the training]."
Joining Morgan is new team member Emma, a rescue dog adopted by Silent Sidekicks volunteer Darlene Kenney of Houlton. "She lights up people's faces," says Kenney. The two visit the elderly in hospitals and nursing homes in the Houlton area. "They need contact," Kenney says. "Many of the older people up here were farmers, they had animals. It brings them joy." She adds, "I feel the same way myself." Right now Emma's energy level is too high for "listening" to children reading, but training will continue so that eventually she can participate in that component of the program.
Ireland's goal with the nonprofit is to have a complete network of teams in the state. She's particularly keen on bringing animal therapy teams to rural areas. Growing up in the town of Lincoln and attending college in Colorado, she says, "Personally, I have a passion for smaller towns."
Silent Sidekicks has been contacted by the University of Maine School of Social Work. The two will begin a partnership in the fall to have an animal assisted therapy internship. She'd love to see a team or two working in Washington County, she notes.
Nelson encourages those with the time and the right pet to consider joining an animal therapy organization. Training is "common sense," says Kenney, but that doesn't mean that it's simple. Training and assessment are for both the animal and its owner and/or handler. There are pet health requirements that must be met, including impeccable grooming, up‑to‑date shots and more. Belonging to a registered group is important, notes Nelson, for many reasons. It isn't about being a cute activity, she notes. If it was, she wouldn't have been interested. She points to the marked improvement in DORF (DIBELS Oral Reading and Fluency and Retell) scores of children who read to Pitot and Broken over a period of time in the R.E.A.D. program.
Ireland explains that not only are the training and assessment essential, but her nonprofit, like other groups that work with national animal therapy organizations, has commercial liability insurance for its teams. She says, "It is usually one of the first things facilities ask about and we want to make sure everyone knows that. Also, teams are covered by Pet Partners insurance when they are evaluated and registered through that organization." While some institutions have been hesitant, Ireland says, "For the most part when I explain the training, the insurance and the benefits [to children and the elderly or hospital‑bound], we've found that people are really interested in the program."
In Washington County Ireland and Morgan work at the Woodland Public Library during "Brianna's Story Time." The story time will resume in the fall with the possibility of a special event during the town's Octoberfest celebration. Librarian Sylvia Brown says, "It's been a great addition. The kids really like it." Pitot would approve.
For more information about Silent Sidekicks visit, <www.silentsidekicks.org>.