October 27, 2011 |

Hank the dog helps collar young readers

Hank "the reading dog" was a hit with Haines School students this month.

The canine observed first, second and third-graders as they read aloud books like "Henry and Mudge and the Sneaky Crackers" and "Sammy the Seal."

"I wouldn’t have believed it, if I hadn’t been there, to see what it does for children," said Barbara Pardee, reading specialist. "They were just, absolutely, doing their very best."

Resident Randa Szymanski owns the 2-year-old Hank, a border collie, black Lab and German shepherd mix she found at a pound in Pennsylvania. Szymanski first thought of Hank as a potential search and rescue dog, but Hank didn’t seem too interested.

"A search and rescue dog has to have a lot of drive; when he gets on a scent, he has to stay with that scent for however long," Szymanski said. "Hank has a really good nose and he can pick up a scent, but he gets bored."

She said Hank was more suited to work closely with young children, so Hank started obedience training and therapy-dog testing in Pennsylvania.

Szymanski recently contacted Haines reading teacher Jeanne Kitayama to see if the school would be interested in Hank’s services.

Reading specialist Pardee made sure the students were ready for Szymanski and their four-legged visitor.

"We practice for several days before he comes, and they have several books that they can read to him, with expression," Pardee said. "They’ve practiced a lot, and that gives them a real motive, that they’re going to have Hank listen to them."

She said Hank "gives great attention to the child, and if the child shows him the pictures, he looks like he’s understanding what’s going on."

"He’s just very inspiring to the kids," Pardee said. "First of all, they had to work hard to be prepared to read to him, and then they love his reaction to them, and they believe in him."

For his efforts, the students rewarded Hank with treats, and Szymanski noted, "The kids love that part just as much as he does."

She said Hank reacted differently to each reader.

"The kids who put animation into their voice, he really responded," Szymanski said. "There was one little girl who spoke very softly – she was very shy – and he was very keyed in on her."

At least one of the students already is expecting bigger things from Hank, Pardee said.

"One kid said to me, in first grade, ‘So, when does Hank learn to talk?’" she said. "I said, ‘Well, I don’t know about that, but I know he really listens well.’"

Third-grader Wesley Verhamme, 8, said Hank was calm, nice and didn’t interrupt stories with barking.

"He was fun," Verhamme said. "He would listen to us. If you would read to him, he would put one of his ears up to you."

Verhamme said he looks forward to reading with Hank again.

"He’s going to come back in the spring and see how much the children have grown in their reading," Pardee said.

Szymanski and Hank are out of town for the winter. Szymanski said she’s looking into volunteering with Hank at schools and nursing homes in Pennsylvania.

She said Hank is "a soothing presence for children," and seeing the reactions in Haines was "the most wonderful part."

"The kids are the key," Szymanski said. "They absolutely love the dog, they respond to the dog, and it takes away their fear of reading."