‘Paws and Read’ with Theo and Marie Robert
He’s soft, cuddly, patient, and loves a good book. Who can resist Theo?
Together with his person, Marie Robert, Theo, an Australian labradoodle and certified therapy pup, supports kids learning to read by lending an ear during Paws and Read, a twice-weekly Guilford Free Library (GFL) program in the Children’s Department.
On Mondays and Wednesdays from 4 to 5 p.m., this volunteer team is there to hear stories shared by children, ages 5 and up, who can read independently. Each child spends one-on-one time with Theo and Marie during a pre-registered, 15-minute reading slot. To sign up in advance, call (203) 453-8282 or stop by the children’s department.
For Marie, a retired pediatrician, this is a dream “job.” The Guilford resident knew about past Paws and Read GFL offerings and was eager to offer her services. Really eager.
“I actually carried him into the Guilford Free Library when he was about 10 weeks old,” says Marie of Theo, who’s about to turn six shortly. “He was too little to put on the ground because he hadn’t completed his vaccinations yet. But I was so interested in the reading program that I brought him in to meet the librarians.”
That was the first time Marie met GFL Children’s Librarian Angelina Carnevale, who encouraged her to keep GFL in mind when Theo was ready.
“She was very supportive of the idea because they’d had reading dogs before,” says Marie.
As Marie can attest, however, there’s quite a bit of work involved on the way to becoming a certified team.
“I thought I’d be back to the library in a year, but it actually took us three years!” she says, laughing. “We had to pass the therapy dog test with Pet Partners first.”
She says the road to certification was a bit longer than expected simply because Theo is a loving dog.
“He really loves people, and he has to curb his enthusiasm a little bit. So as a puppy, he had a little bit of trouble doing that. If he saw a person, he would want to meet them. Like a lot of dogs, he’d want to jump up and say ‘hello,’ and you’re not allowed to do that. So he had to learn to be a little calmer when he met people.”
Established in 1977, Pet Partners is the national leader in demonstrating and promoting the health and wellness benefits of animal-assisted therapy, activities, and education. Marie and Theo are members of Pet Partners of South Central Connecticut. Theo’s training included completing Pet Partners’ “Read With Me” program.
The organization certifies pet partners of all types, Marie notes.
“They have all kinds of therapy animals—horses, guinea pigs, cats,” she says. “I think dogs are particularly empathetic creatures, so they’re ideal, but there are many animals that seem to participate successfully.”
After becoming certified, Marie and Theo returned to GFL to sign up for Paws and Read.
“We were welcomed back by Angelina and all of the librarians. They’ve all been very friendly and very welcoming to us. Theo’s made a lot of friends!”
Marie says teaming up with a therapy dog was on her radar even before finding Theo.
“I was practicing as a pediatrician in Orange for 34 years, and as I was approaching my retirement, I had read about reading dogs and thought they were just a wonderful, wonderful thing. So I was thinking I would like to find a dog who could become a therapy team with me, and that we could find a library that could use us and have the opportunity to have kids read with him.”
Marie and her husband, retired pediatrician Warren Andimen, have resided in Guilford for 40 years and raised their two daughters here. As a result, Marie is well-acquainted with GFL and wanted to volunteer with the library.
“The Guilford Library is just so excellent, and the children’s library is so wonderful; it was just the first place I thought of.”
Marie’s background as a pediatrician also blended well with her wish to help provide an animal-based therapeutic environment to help kids grow in their reading skills.
“It was really an honor and a privilege to take care of children and their families these last 34 years. It’s something that I enjoyed immensely. So it seemed like an excellent combination. I think reading is a huge, wonderful avenue to be able to learn so much about the world, and loving dogs are such sweet, wonderful creatures. So combining everything just seemed like the thing to do, and it’s been really fun.”
For certified pups like Theo, remaining calm while being read to helps provide an empathetic ear that can encourage kids in their skills and build their confidence and love of reading.
“I think reading to him is like reading to someone who will not criticize you or judge you, but just enjoys being with you. You don’t have to worry about being a very good reader or pronouncing every word correctly. He’s just there to enjoy you and enjoy your reading. He’s a very good listener.”
Topping that off is Theo’s fantastic personality and, let’s be frank, his super-cuddly, silky soft coat.
“Labradoodles come with different hair textures. His tends to be very soft,” says Marie, who keeps Theo on a regular grooming schedule to keep up his fluff.
And Theo doesn’t mind a good petting.
“Kids tend to love petting him. He’s extremely soft and extremely accommodating and friendly,” says Marie.
In an interesting twist, Theo wasn’t very touchable when the team started out at GFL—but it wasn’t his fault. Due to the pandemic, their reading sessions had to be held via Zoom.
“We started out by Zoom in January 2020, the month after we got certified,” says Marie. “I think what made it possible was having Angelina be so helpful to us. Having a dog read to on Zoom is not anywhere as nice as being able to read to a dog in person. But it worked for those few months.”
After about five months, they were able to switch to sessions outside the library, then inside. During sessions, Marie sits close by while readers take a seat next to Theo to read (an adult is also welcome to join their child).
As the child reads and Theo listens, “I pretty much try to stay neutral,” says Marie. “For children I see often, I may interact with their parents and them a little more, but I’m trying to let the child enjoy reading to Theo as much as possible.”
Both repeat readers and new readers continue to sign up for Paws and Read with Theo.
“There are some regular readers and a sprinkling of new readers as we go along,” says Marie, adding, “I will say that when children have read to him regularly, I can see them getting better in their reading.”
Marie thinks that type of progress may be a combination of kids “practicing more and having more fun,” when reading with Theo.
Shout Out to Paws and Effect
Marie and Theo trained for his Pet Partners certification at Paws n’ Effect (Hamden). She’s grateful for the assistance of Paws n’ Effect owner/trainer Kathy Shea and trainer Sandy House.
“They were both wonderful in helping us and training us for the last six years. We keep going there because, with dogs, it seems that success comes with patience, kindness, and more patience!” says Marie.
As a result, Marie and Theo are helping kids and enjoying every minute.
“These reading programs are very helpful to children. It’s a wonderful way to encourage kids to enjoy reading because they have a little dog listening to them and giving them some encouragement,” Marie says, adding, “And it’s really fun because the children’s library is a really fun place. Kids say ‘Hi’ to Theo when he visits, even if they’re not there to read to him. He’s become a popular fellow.”