BELOIT - Beloit Memorial High School students have been reading up a storm thanks to Mary the comfort dog.
Mary, a golden retriever from the K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry offered through St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Janesville, visits special education teacher Beth Cox's classroom twice a month.
Last year, student Mauricio Ramos proposed the idea of having students read to a dog.
On Thursday, each student took a turn going with Mary to a room with a comfy bean bag chair and reading to her as the canine cuddled up close.
Although some of Cox's students have been shy to read in front of their peers, they don't mind doing it with furrier friends.
"They sit down with Mary and they start reading. They lose themselves in the experience," Cox said.
Student Nayeli Sanchez said the dog is calm, listens and is sweet. Nayeli, who misses her Dobermann which passed away a year ago, enjoys special Mary time.
"She's a great listener and she doesn't correct," added one of Mary's handlers, Dianne Moore.
Ramos, who pitched the idea of the dog, said he was excited to see Mary doing so well in classrooms this year.
"It will help students get better at reading," he said.
Ramos said Mary's good for him too, noting he loves dogs and has had four special dogs pass away during his lifetime.
In addition to her soothing ways in the bean bag, Mary's help is evident in the class. Cox said her students who hesitated to read in September have become more confident and are reading aloud more often in class.
Because Mary's visits are going so well, other teachers are inquiring if Mary can make a stop to their rooms as well. Mary also goes out into the hallway during passing time where students can mingle with her.
"Students stop and ask if they can pet her. She has a vest that says 'please pet me,'" Cox said.
Cox said she sees a lot of potential for dogs like Mary. In addition to assisting reading students, Cox said the Mary could provide comfort to students with test anxiety or a those with personal struggles.
"She doesn't judge or critique you. She just loves you for being there and who you are," Cox said.
Mary has nine handlers and five people devoted to fundraising and publicity, according to Cheryl Skelly, one of the handlers who also leads up Mary's scheduling and public relations.
Mary is one of 130 comfort dogs around the country. She was acquired by the church on March 1, after undergoing almost two years of training by Lutheran Church Charities. Her handlers take her around to nursing homes, hospitals, schools, places with veterans and wherever they find a need for comfort in Rock County. Mary is beginning to visit inmates at the Rock County Jail and between shifts with the 911 Communications Center employees.
Skelly said golden retrievers are trainable, mild mannered and even-tempered.
"They love people and people tend to be drawn to them like magnet," Skelly said. "When a person can't do something for someone who is struggling or suffering, a dog can reach in a way another person can't."
Skelly said there is a waiting list of 24 churches waiting for a comfort dog.
Despite her busy schedule, Mary has availability for more visits around the community. Those interested in some Mary time can call 608-754-4471.
Skelly said Mary shows people they are loved.
"We do this through the four-pawed creature called Mary, and she's irresistible," Skelly said.