By Kathy Chaffin
CLEVELAND ó Sue, the yellow Labrador retriever, listens quietly while four students in Barbara Langford’s fourth-grade class take turns reading from “Rosie: A Visiting Dog’s Story.”
Juwan Houston starts the book with Ricky Foutz, David Castellon-Mancia and Dashawn Dalton joining in.
Sue, her head resting on her right paw, looks up occasionally when the story gets interesting. Watching her, it’s impossible not to think she might really understand.
Sue’s story is similar to Rosie’s.
In fact, at different points in Rosie’s story, Sue’s owner, Jan Lewis, points out the similarities in a scrapbook chronicling the Lab’s training as a service dog and life as a therapy dog.
The students seem fascinated by the scrapbook. Once Jan has finished showing them photographs and comments she wrote about Sue, they return to reading.
Jan, who has taken Sue to other schools besides Cleveland Elementary, says reading to a dog is much less intimidating for children than reading to an adult.
“There’s no judgment,” she says. “Nobody’s going to laugh. She just sits there like she knows exactly what they’re saying and what’s coming next.”
In between the readings, Jan gives the students a chance to ask questions about Sue, who is wearing a red Therapy Dogs Inc. cape and collar.
She also demonstrates the dog’s discipline by placing two treats on both of her paws. Sue doesn’t move and only eats the treats after Jan gives her permission.
The friendly Lab also responds to 32 commands and only barks when she thinks her owner could be in danger.
The fourth-graders seem to especially enjoy watching Jan brush Sue’s teeth.
“She has to have fresh breath being a service dog because she gets really close to people’s faces,” she says.
Sue responds as if she likes having her teeth brushed, even if Jan is not using her favorite chicken-flavored toothpaste. The yellow Lab also seems to delight in having her coat brushed.
“She says, ‘Oh, that feels so good,’ ” Jan says, speaking for Sue, then lets the students take turns brushing her.
Jan points out Sue’s tattoo in her right ear, a way of identifying her if she gets lost.
After a while, Jan tells the class she’s removing Sue’s cape so she’ll know she’s off work. Right away, the dog seems to relax.
Then something magical happens. When the dog in Sue starts to come out, the boys in the students emerge as well.
They take turns playing catch with a plush ball and hamburger Jan pulls out of her tote bag when she puts the cape inside.
Sue seems to enjoy the play time. She’s really attached to her toys, Jan says.
At Christmas, when she put out 30 Belkie bears she had collected through the years for her 3-year-old granddaughter to enjoy, Jan say she noticed one of the bears on the steps kept disappearing.
She’d look for it and find it hidden beneath Sue’s toys. When she started packing the bears up after the holidays, Jan says she decided to leave that one out for Sue.
“For two days, she wouldn’t let me near that bear,” she says. “She thought I was going to put it up, I guess.”
Sue goes almost everywhere Jan goes. The students seem particularly impressed when she tells them about Sue going with her to church.
The fact is, Sue has been attending First Presbyterian Church of Salisbury, from which Jan’s husband, Bob, retired as pastor, since she was a puppy.
Leigh Harland started taking her to the church when she was training her to be a service dog for the Canine Companions for Independence (CCI).
When the national nonprofit ó which matches trained dogs with disabled children and adults needing assistance ó failed to find a suitable match for Sue, Harland called the Lewises to see if they were interested in giving her a home.
“I just feel like there was some divine intervention,” Jan says, “and Sue was meant to be our dog.”
That was in October 2006, just six months after the Lewises lost their black Lab, Pepsi, to cancer. Lucy, their light yellow Lab, had died the year before.
Jan didn’t want Sue’s Canine Companions training to go to waste, so she signed her up for Therapy Dogs Inc., which is actually a step below the service dog program. “And she passed with flying colors,” Jan says.
Since then, the two have been a hit with not only students, but senior citizens at retirement centers, assisted-living facilities and nursing homes.
Jan received a letter this week, for example, from the principal of one of the schools they had visited, saying one of her students was having a bad day and said “he needed the therapy dog.”
Senior citizens in various programs and facilities bond with Sue as well. Many of them had to leave their own dogs behind, Jan says, “and are starved for the love and attention that only a dog can give.”
“I believe with my whole heart that dogs are able to communicate with those people.”
The motto of Therapy Dogs Inc. is written on the logo patch of the capes they wear on the job: “Turning tears into smiles and helping the forgotten to laugh.”
Jan, who retired 13 years ago from teaching middle-school children the art of ballroom dancing and social graces, says she was hoping to find something she would enjoy doing on a part-time basis.
“This came along,” she says, “and Sue and I just became a team, which is wonderful for me and I hope for other people, too.”
Sue is an important part of the Lewis family. She goes with Jan and Bob to restaurants (Pinocchios in Spencer is her favorite because she has her own spot in the corner), shopping and even to the movies.
“Sometimes she watches,” Jan says, “and sometimes she looks at us like, ‘What’s going on? Why are we sitting here in the dark?’ ”
Sue also likes to watch TV, she says, and particularly enjoys “American Idol.”
Who is her favorite singer so far in the competition?
“She hasn’t picked one yet,” Jan says. “She’s a little like Simon, I think.
“They have to be really good.”
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.