POLSON - Pecos is ten-years-old, with soft brown, black and white hair. She is smart, gentle and kind. She loves to give kisses and hugs. She also loves to listen.
A playful and loving part of the Leas' family since she was a puppy, owner Ed Leas is sharing his Australian Shepherd, with others. Between giving her time to the elderly as a therapy dog at an assisted living facility and lending an ear to Polson students who need a little help with reading, this pup has limited time to do what dogs do best, lay around.
Initially, Leas said he learned about therapy dogs through a hospice lecture he attended as an employee at St. Joseph's Hospital in Polson.
"I decided to pursue it a little bit further," he said. "Pecos is pretty active and she needed a job, so I figured this would be a good match and something that her and I could do together."
One of the requirements to becoming a hospice dog is to be a certified therapy dog, so Leas had Montana Therapy Dogs certify Pecos in January. "Montana T-Doggers" and Therapy Dogs Incorporated out of Cheyenne, Wyom., had an application process that included a two-hour test. Testers made sure Pecos was well-behaved, had a good demeanor with people and could handle going into the facilities. Then, they required four additional observations which took place in actual assisted living facilities.
While it's still new to her, Leas and Pecos commit an hour each month at assisted living facility here in town. They spend 20 to 30 minutes in each apartment. Leas said it's often hard to leave the rooms because the residents just love to talk.
"I think we both really enjoy that a lot," Leas said. "We get a lot out of it and the residents really enjoy seeing her and reminiscing about their animals. It really brings a smile to their faces. Pecos will come in and lay right in front of them, listen to them, put her head on their lap."
She gives them kisses and hugs too.
In addition to her weekly visitations with the elderly, Pecos spends an hour each week reading with kids. For the last six weeks, Pecos and Leas have been visiting Mrs. Delaney's classroom for a pilot run of the new Linderman Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program.
The program's goal is to improve children's reading and communication skills by allowing them the chance to read aloud to a registered therapy dog. After all, an animal doesn't care if the reader struggles to pronounce a word, or fumbles a few times before the sentence is clear. In this low-pressure environment, a child can really take his time and work through difficulties in the material.
Pecos currently works with five kids that rotate through three 20-minute spots a week.
"These are kids that are needing a little extra assistance," Leas said.
He adds, after just a few weeks, improvements are notable and students are able to read more fluently and confidently since no body is there to judge them. Sometimes, he pauses the story and asks the students to explain to Pecos the meaning of a particularly tough word, or summarize a long paragraph because Pecos didn't understand.
"It's been going really well," he said. "The kids really enjoy reading to her and they're really opening up to us."
According to Leas, kids are not only reading to Pecos, but telling her their own stories and voicing their struggles.
"It's helping them with reading," he said. "But, it's really helping with their social skills as much as their reading."
Right now, the challenge is that Pecos can only handle an hour or two a week, which means working with just three children.
"I would love to have more dogs available and more people willing to do this," Leas said. "It would be great to be able to help 20 kids and have four or five dogs in the program."
For further information on the steps to becoming a therapy dog, contact email@example.com or visit www.therapydogs.com and www.mttherapydogs.com, for the local Montana chapter.