A few minutes before I met Rebecca Henderson, I ran into one of her young fans at the Bangor Public Library. I was following a trail of paw prints to the back of the children’s room when I had this brief exchange with a very cheerful boy:
“I read these books to the dog!”
“Oh! How did he like them?”
“Well, he gave me lots of kisses.”
That sums up the happy experience of many young readers who practice their skills with Atticus, the “Listening Lab.” He is one of two dogs who regularly accompany Rebecca to the library for weekly sessions with children who enjoy reading aloud to a furry friend. Atticus, a winsome yellow Lab of indeterminate age, alternates weeks with Finch, a spunky 10-pound papillon. Both dogs generally arrive to a full docket of readers to fill their two-hour visit.
As an avid canine enthusiast, I am not surprised by the popularity of Atticus and Finch (the reference to Harper Lee’s famous protagonist is no accident), nor by the way children relax and open up around the dogs. That loving, nonjudgmental presence invites engagement in a way no human could duplicate. But the dogs could not do their job without the dedicated guidance of a human. I was curious to learn the story behind the woman who conducts the dog-reading program.
Rebecca is the owner of Renaissance Dogs, a dog day care and boarding business in Holden. It was at the Triple Crown Academy in Texas, a professional trainer’s program, where Rebecca met and adopted Atticus, a rescue dog. Since then, four more canine companions have joined Rebecca’s household, and her professional life has gradually gone to the dogs.
But it was not always that way. In fact, not so long ago, Rebecca worked in a fast-paced corporate job at Monster.com.
“So… why dogs?” I asked.
She hesitated for a moment before responding.
“Nine-eleven,” she said.
The day of the terrorist attacks in 2001 profoundly changed Rebecca’s focus.
“Life’s too short not to do what you love.”
Rebecca began working in shelters, completed dog trainer’s education and found work in Maine, where her mother had retired.
“I run the business with my mother. She’s amazing. She came in and helped me with my dream.”
One of the reasons she made the move from shelter work to owning her own business was so she could implement all of her own philosophies in her day care, training and boarding. Compassionate pet care is Rebecca’s passion. Dogs in her facility spend their time cage- and collar-free. They play in groups, both outdoors and in, and receive lots of positive, hands-on attention throughout the day.
Not only that, Rebecca extends her own and her dogs’ nurturing skills into the community at large. Two of her dogs are certified therapy dogs and another is close to certification. Cooper, a shepherd-golden mix, was a troop greeter for a while along with Atticus. Rebecca and her dogs take part in several educational outreach programs each year. All of that volunteer work serves the dual purpose of helping people and helping dogs through public exposure and education.
Rebecca’s patience and teaching skill are evident in her gentle, encouraging style with the children at the library. She keeps careful track of their progress. When they have completed 10 books, they get to pick out a gift book as a prize — personally inscribed with a “paw-tograph” from Atticus and Finch. At the end of each 15-minute reading, children love to play a little game of “hide the treat” — they hide a dog treat on the shelves and Atticus sniffs it out.
It is a multiwin arrangement. Kids improve their reading, learn to love books and gain respect and affection for dogs. The dogs get to practice their best library behavior. And for Rebecca, it is a weekly highlight. After the rambunctious atmosphere at work, it is a welcome break:
“It means quiet time for me, and I get to have one-on-one time with my dogs.”
Before I met Rebecca I wondered what would inspire a busy person to set aside so much time as a volunteer, and I left with a clear answer from her:
“My dogs inspire me. I love to show people how amazing they are.”
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.