By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneOctober 16, 2009
At first glance, Taka is a big dog.
The German shepherd stands taller than many young children.
But, after meeting him, it doesn't take long for Taka's gentle demeanor, high tolerance level and friendly nature to bring his stature down to a child's level, where he is petted, hugged and kissed, and read to.
Taka is a registered therapy dog and a Reading Education Assistance Dog. He spends the first Saturday morning of each month practicing his listening skills with children who read to him at the Post Library as part of the Tales with Taka program. At his side is his owner and trainer, Jamie Ward, who spends her working days as the acting chief of the acquisition management division, Lower Tier Project Office.
"This is all fun for the children. It gets them comfortable around dogs and encourages them with their reading," Ward said. "It's a way for me to support the troops and their families."
On a recent Saturday morning, Taka read books with two members of Taka's Pack Readers -- 9-year-old Sofia Rundini and 7-year-old Isabella Fratangelo. Both picked out books that they knew Taka would like.
"I read 'Mary Had A Little Jam' to him because there is a dog part in the story about Wee Willie Winkie and his dog, Fred," Sofia said of the book of rhymes. "The last time I read to him, I read 'Buffy's Revenge' because that story is about two dogs.
"I like lying down beside Taka. I like it when he licks me."
Sofia has two dogs at home - Spike and Patty. But neither sits still long enough to let her read to them.
"We have a standing date with Taka. She loves to pick out books from home to bring to Taka," said Sofia's mom, Stacey English, who works for the Corps of Engineers. Sofia's dad, retired Coast Guard servicemember Mauro Rundini, works for MedFlight as a helicopter pilot.
After her reading time, Sofia gave Taka a treat and a hug, and promised to return next month.
When it was her turn, Isabella had a special treat for Taka - a reading of "Harry and the Lady Next Door," a popular dog book for children. Taka nestled down next to Isabella and put his head in her lap.
"When he leans over in your lap, he wants to hear better," Ward told Isabella.
Isabella first met Taka at the library open house in August.
"I like to read to Taka because he listens," Isabella said. "I got this book at school, and I've been practicing reading it so that I could read it to Taka."
Isabella's mom, Ranee Fratangelo, also brought her youngest brother, 16-month-old Gus, to the library to pet Taka following the reading time. Isabella's other brother, 4-year-old Cole, was spending the day with the children's dad, Robert Fratangelo, who works at Redstone's Test Area 5.
"Cole wants to read to Taka," Isabella said. "Next month he will be old enough. He will turn 5 years old."
Isabella also has two dogs at home - Dinner and Sena - who aren't interested in reading.
"My dogs are too interested in treats," she said.
After giving Taka a big hug, she begged her mom to let her come back.
"Mom, please sign me up for next month!" she said.
Children who read to Taka must make a reservation through the library.
"We want each child to get their reading time with Taka," said library director Gayle Alden. "If a child comes in and Taka isn't being read to, then we will let them read to Taka. But we like it best if they make a reservation so we know who will be reading to Taka."
The Reading Education Assistance Dog program was started in 1999 as a comprehensive literacy program built around children's love of dogs. The READ program uses only registered therapy dogs who have been trained and tested for health, safety, appropriate skills and temperament.
"Taka's calm nature makes him able to touch children, even children who have been previously hurt by dogs," Ward said. "He not only helps them to enjoy reading, but he also teaches kids how to be safe around dogs."
Before he became a READ, Ward practiced reading with Taka in a variety of different environments.
"We went to a lot of parks and places where there are lots of distractions to see if he could pay attention," she said. "Before the program starts on Saturday mornings, I will play with him with a ball to get his energy level down. Then, he will sit with the children and listen as they read.
"He loves to put his head in the children's laps. Sometimes he goes to sleep. I tell the children that he is closing his eyes to imagine the story and that he loved hearing their voice so much that he went 'night, night' just like they might do when their mom or dad are reading to them before they go to sleep at night."
There are safety rules that the children must follow to be one of Taka's Pack Readers. The rules - including "Be gentle," "Don't sneak up on us" and "Respect our space" -- are the same rules all children should follow when around dogs.
When time permits, Taka also spends time with the Soldiers who come to the library on the first Saturday of the month. During a recent visit, Pvt. Andrew Lane and Pvt. Tim Parker, both of Bravo Company, got their picture taken with Taka.
But it's the children that Taka has the most impact on.
"This program is wonderful for encouraging children to visit the library, to love books and to love reading," Alden said.
To schedule a reading time with Taka, call the library at 876-4741.