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Paws on reading: Therapy dog helps kids gain confidence

SALISBURY — At 5 years old, Marley is a celebrity. When he walks through the campus of North Hills Christian School, kids gasp and yell.

“Marley!”

“Hey, Marley!”

“I love Marley!”

Marley is a therapy dog who’s been patiently building students’ confidence in reading for more than three years. Owner Norma Shuping said the yellow lab has made a lot of friends in that time.

“We go to a different class every week,” she said.

Each Tuesday, Shuping and Marley visit North Hills. Marley trots across campus with a bag in his mouth full of bookmarks or other treats for students.

They come during reading time, and when they get to their assigned class for the week students come out in twos and threes, books in hand.

The therapy session may take place in the hallway, but it’s a cozy setting. The children sit close to Marley and reach out a hand to rub his ears while they take turns reading aloud. Marley, an avid lover of children, lays his head on their knee or their laps to encourage them to keep reading — even if they stumble.

Shuping said Marley — and therapy dogs in general — are excellent for children to practice reading to because of their willingness to listen.

“They don’t feel intimidated,” she said. “There’s no judgment; it’s all unconditional.”

Instead of worrying about how well they’re reading, students relax with one look from Marley’s big, brown eyes and just focus on reading and enjoying the story.

On Tuesday, Shuping and Marley paid a visit to Leslie Hunsucker’s fifth-grade class. Hunsucker said the group has been reading “The Black Stallion” by Walter Farley. Over the years, Hunsucker said she’s seen the positive impact Marley has had on her students.

“They really do look forward to Marley coming, and the ones in the class were dying to get out into the hallway with him,” she said. “I think it really does reduce their stress and calms them while reading.”

Some of Hunsucker’s students hadn’t seen Marley in several years and welcomed the opportunity to read to him again.

“I love Marley,” student Maggie Cross said. “He’s amazing at how calm he is. The last time I saw Marley, I was in second grade. I was glad to see him again today. He would always lay his head on my leg, always, and he did it again today.”

Student Morgan Deaton is familiar with therapy dogs. Her grandfather got one to help with his PTSD.

“Marley truly is a therapy dog. He helps people overcome being scared to read in front of others,” Morgan said.

Marley’s journey began more than four years ago when Shuping and her family rescued him out of a bad situation.

“He was really sick for the first year,” she said.

Veterinarians weren’t sure he would survive, but Marley proved to be a fighter, and his recovery inspired Shuping.

“The grace of God brought him back, and we decided to give back,” she said.

Marley received his therapy certification through Canine Angels, an organization that caters to veterans. But in their spare time, Marley and Shuping go above and beyond. The two pay weekly visits to local private schools and also visit Novant Health Rowan Medical Center and local nursing homes.

“If we can just be a blessing to one person every day — that’s the goal,” Shuping said.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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