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Bearded collie and her owner help children read

By Staff | Jun 1, 2016

Ginny Fleming listens to Oliver Wilkinson read as Bessie, a Reading Education Assistant Dog, sits close by. MEGHAN MCCOY

A bearded collie who was badly injured almost eight years ago has been giving back to the community through various therapy practices since 2011.

Sanibel resident Ginny Fleming welcomed Bessie into her home when she was 8 weeks old, which created a forever bond with her new companion.

“We have communication,” Fleming said of her and Bessie. “I know what she’s telling me. I watch for what she does next.”

Unfortunately, when Bessie was 2 years old, she was hit by a truck and underwent years of therapy to help her stand and walk. Fleming said she’s glad she chose the therapy route for Bessie because she came out of the experience as a different dog.

“She has an extraordinary sense,” Fleming said. “It gave her instinct for pain. She had a great sense of what to do.”

Bessie enjoys some scratches after listening to Ryley Wilkinson read her a book about sharks. MEGHAN MCCOY

With the new discovery, Fleming went through the steps to turn Bessie into a therapy dog, which was granted in 2011 by Therapy Dogs International. The team had to be tested and observed, as well as go through six weeks of training in facilities.

In 2011, Fleming and Bessie began visiting the Children’s Hospital.

“She’s very intuitive about things and is a good match with children and the hospital,” she said. “She’s a good model for a therapy dog.”

The affection with children stemmed from a young age for Bessie due to Fleming having 11 grandchildren with which she interacted.

The duo visited the hospital every Friday afternoon, which sparked some excitement for the doctors as well. Fleming said as soon as they stepped off the elevator Bessie would know what direction to go. When Bess started showing some signs of becoming sore from all the walking at the hospital, Fleming decided to give her a rest.

“We will go back once the new hospital is up,” she said. “It will be easy for her to go around to every unit.”

In 2012, Bessie expanded her therapy outreach when she became a Reading Education Assistant Dog through the R.E.A.D. program at the Sanibel Public Library.

“She is a good listener,” Fleming said.

On rain-free Thursday’s Fleming and Bess make a trip to the library so youngsters can read to Bess from 4 to 5 p.m. Participants can sign up on the spot to read to Bess, or call the Sanibel Public Library to make an appointment for a different day.

Bess now knows the way to the library when riding in the car with Fleming. Her excitement builds as they near the entrance of the library.

Once Fleming and Bessie climb the stairs of the library a familiar routine begins. Fleming fills a water bowl for Bessie after she makes a stop at the water fountain. Once the bowl has some water, Bessie then greets familiar faces before making it to the children’s section of the library. Fleming puts a blanket down where the youngsters can sit and read to Bessie, a spot where Bessie lays down.

On occasion, Bessie will sit near an aisle where she can see people coming and going, as she patiently waits for kids to come and read to her. Once the children enter the space she greets them, as well as their parents as the kids find a book to read.

Fleming sits with the child and Bessie and often times witnesses the youngster petting the dog while reading to lower their anxiety of reading out loud, as well as experience their emotions while turning the pages of the book.

“It only takes one time to be comfortable with reading. It’s a process of encouragement,” Fleming said of the kids that read to Bess.

Fleming and Bess’s goal is to provide encouragement for the kids when they are reading, all while creating a fun environment.

“We are doing our job if they have fun,” she said. “All you have to do is come away with one smile.”

Fleming said Bessie does a great job of laying next to the young reader, which sometimes turns into a nap. Fleming attributes the nap to the kids being such great readers.

“She’s good at it and I want to encourage it,” Fleming said of Bessie being a Reading Education Assistant Dog. “I’m doing it because it’s rewarding to me to help them along and make them feel they are achieving.”

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.