Timba

The making of doggone good readers

St. John Ambulance Therapy dog puts struggling young readers at ease

Timba can’t read. Doesn’t talk much. Yet, he’s one of the best literacy ambassadors in Sooke.

Not only that, he works pretty much for free, except, of course for the odd doggie treat.

The 13-year-old yellow Labrador cross with a face distinguished with a triangular-shaped head and erect ears, has exactly what kids who struggle with reading need.

He’s a good listener. He doesn’t judge. He has a calm disposition.

Beginning this month, Timba and his owner Josée Bélanger will visit Sooke’s Vancouver Island Regional Library branch to help children improve their reading skills.

The children will snuggle up to Timba on a blanket with book in hand and read aloud. And read some more. Timba will listen attentively, sometime rollover to get his belly scratched or his ears patted.

Timba is part of Paws 4 Stories, a program of the Victoria branch of St. John Ambulance that uses therapy dogs to encourage reluctant readers.

The therapy dogs are used in hospitals, schools, seniors homes hospices and libraries.

When a calm dog is lying beside the child who is reading, then the child is reading to a non judgmental, warm and accepting friend, says Liz Barlow, coordinator of the Paws 4 Stories program.

“Timba is a gentle old man who is so content to sit and be read to,” she says.

“He’s been beautifully trained and handled by Josée. She is a wonderful role model to everyone for taking care of our elders. She spends the time, effort and money to make sure he is living a lovely life.”

For Sooke librarian Adrienne Wass, the Paws 4 Stories program is another opportunity to promote reading. Some kids struggle with literacy, others face problems reading aloud.

The program is expected to start within the next week, and will be held in a quiet area of the library, where children can read undisturbed avoiding the hustle and bustle of the library. It then allows children to read without feeling self-conscious.

“Timba has a great calming nature, and he’s very Zen, in a way. He’s very good at just laying down and looking at you. He’s very relaxing. I’m hoping that’s going to translate well into the reading program,” Wass says.

“It’s all about supporting children and introducing the joys of reading. I think this program will be very successful.”

Timba has had his own struggles in life.

He was abandoned in Northern Ontario when he was 11 weeks old and found cold and shivering under a car in the dead of winter.

Timba was full of fear and adoptive mom Josée Bélanger, who now lives in Sooke, enrolled him in obedient class so he wouldn’t turn that fear into aggression. It didn’t take long to discover that Timba wanted to be around people in need.

Bélanger, a registered nurse, would take Timba to work and he would soon find people suffering from all sorts of ailments.

“This dog was meant to heal people. He just calms them down,” she says.

Once Bélanger discovered Timba’s true nature she worked him as a therapy dog, and when she moved to B.C. enrolled him in the St. John program where he became certified.

He passed with flying colours.

He has since worked with children, seniors and palliative patients. He recently volunteered at a homeless shelter in Victoria and Sooke’s École Poirier elementary school.

“There’s something really special about Timba,” Bélanger says, admitting most people say that about their pets. “[But] Timba has another something there because of his intuition.”

When Bélanger puts on Timba’s red collar and the white St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog bandana, he knows it’s time to go to work.

His demeanor changes: he stands up a little straighter, ears erect and chest pumped out.

When he arrives at work, there is the usual glee from those he comes to visit, but his demeanor is always the same, never too excited, only happy to be there.

• Sessions for the Paws 4 Stories reading program are by appointment only, please call the Sooke library at 250-642-3022 or email sooke@virl.bc.ca for more information or to register.