By TERRI HARBER
The lights were low and the atmosphere relaxed as a group of nearly two dozen children cuddled with quilts, pillows and stuffed animals to enhance their enjoyment of some good books.
Fred the Reading Dog was a special guest at Brooklyn Primary School as children in Grades K-3 enjoyed a Fun Friday event.
He even dressed up for the occasion by donning a special orange jacket emblazoned with the phrase "Reading Changes Lives."
Fred's skill is making children want to read. He enjoys listening, and he patiently sits nearby as a student reads passages from age-appropriate favorites. He might particularly enjoy this one: "Dog Diaries - Secret Writing of the WOOF Society."
Fred even signs off on the students' reading periods by leaving a paw print on a piece of paper, said Jan Cooperman, who socializes dogs.
"Sometimes he gets real excited and puts his paw in the book," she said.
Fred, who's a yellow Labrador, visits children in local schools about twice a week.
Fred and Cooperman are awaiting certification as a registered pet team through Pet Partners, which until recently was known as Delta Society. The organization seeks to help people become healthier and happier by incorporating therapy, service and companion animals into their lives.
Fred is the second dog Cooperman has prepared for service.
As she spoke last week about Fred and his purpose at the schools, little kids approached her repeatedly. They asked "Can I read to the dog?" or "When can I be with Fred?"
One of the selections Fred panted over that day was "I Wish I Had Duck Feet." The little girl who read it aloud, Kaeli Diamond, gave the dog two thumbs up for his listening skills after he moved on to hear from another child.
"I want to read to him every day!" she exclaimed afterward.
A second girl, Cierra Brooks, said that when she's at home she doesn't read to her dog but does "read to her cats."
The children helped decorate the multipurpose room, said Kathi Bulthius, who heads up the program that offers students a variety of activities, including Fun Fridays.
Children not only enjoy the canine company as they read aloud. Education experts say reading to specially trained dogs makes it easier for the children to recover from making mistakes because dogs aren't listening with judgmental ears. Each appreciates the attention of the other.
The lack of criticism and frequent interaction between readers and dog encourages the children to keep trying until they eventually read well.
During Fun Friday at Brooklyn, many parents and grandparents also took a turn reading and listening. Fred kept the experience fun for everyone. He would look at the reader, then change position and put his nose on the knee of another. Then he'd place a paw in someone else's lap.
The 13 volunteers who help with the afterschool program also play an important role in making Fun Fridays truly fun for the children. Bulthius, a licensed teacher who is paid by grant funds through the InterMountain Education Service District to coordinate the program, said she and the volunteers love seeing how happy Fred makes the children.
Fred and Cooperman also get a lot of joy from this volunteer work. Cooperman would like to see Fred do more. She'd like to take him to visit the public library regularly.
Cooperman spent time as a literacy advocate and really enjoys bringing together these two interests to benefit others, she said.
Fred goes virtually everywhere with Cooperman because he is in training around the clock. She takes him to City Hall when she has to pay a utility bill or visit an employee to discuss something. Fred was seen at a recent Planning Commission meeting, and he attended a Master Gardener class one Saturday. He has been at the Baker City Herald office on several occasions as well.
"Everyone around Baker has been so wonderful knowing he was in training," Cooperman said.
People have been pretty good about leaving Fred alone so he can develop strong powers of concentration. Keeping him calm helps him do his job in the best possible manner.
Fred loves attention. Most people are polite enough to ask permission before petting or speaking to him. Some can't resist.
He is a friendly, curious dog. A room full of small, energetic children provides a lot of stimulation for a dog - especially one as social as Fred.
In situations where untrained dogs would jump and run and bark, Fred has enough discipline now to focus mostly on the person or people he is assisting. If he starts focusing on someone or something else, all it takes to bring his attention back is a simple voice command: "Fred, look at me."
Even though Fred has been in constant training mode, he knows it's time to get to work when Cooperman puts one of his jackets on him.
"He understands certain things he needs to do while wearing it," she said.