How Two Dog Lovers were Motivated to Take Up Pet Therapy, Now Work with Youth Literacy and Engagement

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I’m greeted by Buddy, a large Golden Retriever who seems to smile from ear to ear.  His plush tail wags, and he is sporting a red bandana around his neck. The way he lights up a room is the reason for his visits to multiple hospitals, schools, and non-profits throughout the region. Since 2009, he’s offered needed relief to others through Pet Therapy of the Ozarks.

His owner, Suzette West, loves working with Buddy and sharing him with others, and says it was actually her previous dog who taught her what it meant to be a therapy dog.

“Back in the 2000s my mom was ill with cancer and I knew that I would be her caregiver.  And so when the time came for me to move in with her 24/7, I lasted probably a week—maybe even less—and I was so depressed I called my husband and I said ‘will you bring the dog over.’  I selfishly just wanted Laslow [dog] there for my benefit.  But what I didn’t realize is that he had a huge impact on my mom.  He saw that my job was to take care of my mom, and  therefore that became his job.  And he just never left her side.  He was by her lift chair, her wheel chair or her bedside the whole time,” West says.

She says that Laslow would even wake her in the night when her mother needed help.

Shortly after losing her mother to cancer, West lost Laslow.

“Dogs just teach life-long stories long after they’re gone,” says West.

West says the experience planted a seed in her, and when she and her husband were ready to bring a new pet into their lives, Buddy came along. He was a stray dog, found by an Arkansas farmer, who West says was just what they were looking for.

West, who is the scheduling coordinator for Pet Therapy of the Ozarks, arranges 154 various monthly visits within a 50 mile radius of Springfield.  She says there are currently 75 human volunteers, 85 therapy dogs, and a few cats in the program.

“We also go to some schools that have special education classrooms. Carver Middle School, Central High School, Clever Elementary, Galena Elementary, and then the Springfield Public Schools has BASE program.  This is Business Associate Student Education and it’s for kids with disabilities to prepare them for real life when they get out of high school,” West says.

West says she enjoys visiting a variety of places with Buddy, but one of her favorites is working with kids in the PAL program. PAL, which stands for Pets as Listeners, is a reading program within PTO that uses dogs in local libraries, schools and summer programs.

“Its intent is to encourage reading with young people.  There are studies that show that kids, particularly those who read under their reading level, will read easier to a dog than a person because they can’t be made fun of.  They can’t be critiqued.  So they’re just more relaxed and seem to enjoy reading more,” says West.

West says it is priceless to watch the kids really get into reading with the dogs.

“Quite a few kids come in and when they read a page they will turn the book around and show the dog so he can see the pictures.  Then they will turn the book around and go on to the next page,” says West.

West says they hope to build reading confidence with the kids by interacting with the dogs.

“And one-by-one the kids come in and bring a book and sit down.  They meet Buddy, pet him and read to him. And I have a treat if they want to give it to him.  We also have book marks with a picture of the each of the dogs they’ve just read to,” West says.

“Dogs can get through to kids where people can’t,” says Scott.

That’s Johanna Scott, who tells me about the summer reading program that takes place in the Galena library. They call it “Dog Days at the Library” and PAL teams spend their Wednesday afternoons enjoying stories.

Scott says when she and a friend started the program; they were told it wouldn’t last.  Five years later, they say they have seen some amazing results with the children.  Scott shared a story of a disabled child who never spoke until he said his first word to her dog Bruce. Another story involved a little girl with autism who never interacted with anyone, but began petting and sharing treats with the dogs.

Scott says when it comes to helping kids with their reading skills, it’s best to leave it in the paws of the dog.

“Kids that are having a lot trouble, one of us will take them by themselves over into another part of the library, and they read to the dog.  Probably the hardest thing I had to learn to do, and someone clued me in very early on, he said ‘Jo, sit back and let the dog do the therapy,’” Scott says.

Scott is also a member of PTO.  Her therapy dogs have always been Collies.  Although she and her husband have suffered the recent losses of their long-time therapy companions, they now are preparing a new Collie for the honor. After all, Scott knows first-hand the impact these pets can have.

“Well, the way I got into pet therapy, I had breast cancer and some rather severe reactions to the treatments.  And I was up on 5th floor at Cox and feeling really sorry for myself.  A man stuck his head in the door and asked if I would like a visit from Pumpkin.  And I thought ‘what’s a Pumpkin’ and in walked this fluffy little dog.  And he was with Pet Therapy.  And I thought, ‘I’m going to get over this and get well, and have a pet therapy dog,” Scott says.

For KSMU’s Sense of Community, I’m Theresa Bettmann.

About the Author


 Theresa received her undergraduate degree in sociology at MSU, and now continues her education at MSU pursuing a Master’s degree of Social Work.   Theresa enjoys writing, drawing, reading, music, working with animals, and most of all spending time with her family.  She wishes to use her experience, combined with her pursuit of education, to foster a sense of empowerment and social awareness in the community.  Theresa says she loves working for KSMU and attributes her passion for NPR, and love of learning, to her father.