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Therapy dog thrives in Paws to Read program

Alvaro Polanco’s dog Pete is much in demand. He has visited nursing homes, hospitals and libraries, and Wednesday appeared on national television.

therapy dogPete is a therapy dog. Polanco, a city building inspector, is his owner/handler. They volunteer together through Central Kentucky Love on a Leash, a non-profit organization of volunteers who own therapy dogs.

One of the programs for which they volunteer is Paws to Read. The program allows children to read to dogs, reducing the pressure and insecurities they feel when they read to people. Through the program they improve their reading skills, all the while giving and receiving love from their canine reading buddies.

Polanco was contacted by the national television network Univision, which recently traveled to Lexington for some education-related stories. They spent a day following Alvaro and Pete for a story on Paws to Read.

The story aired at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 10, on a morning show called “Despierta America” on Univision channel 357 Cable.

Pete, a Labrador-mix, started life as a stray. He met Polanco and his wife, Yolanda Pinilla, when he was two years old at the Lexington Humane Society, where they adopted him in 2010.

After being adopted, Pete was enrolled in some basic behavior training. “We saw that he was a really nice dog and thought he could be trained further,” Polanco said. “He was very smart.”

After further training, Pete became certified by the American Kennel Club as a “Canine Good Citizen.”  Soon after, Pete and Polanco became certified as a team through the California-based Love on a Leash, as well as Central Kentucky Love on a Leash. Each year, Pete has to be re-certified and brought up-to-date on his shots.

Pete is also trained to go to nursing homes and hospitals. In a pilot program, sponsored by Baptist Health, Pete obtained his certification to visit patients at the hospital and wears a dog jacket that identifies him as a therapy dog and his own identification badge as a volunteer of Baptist Health of Lexington. He and Polanco visit the hospital at least once a month and prefer going on special days like holidays.

But Pete really enjoys working with children, Alvaro said. So, the two of them spend one Saturday a month working with children at the Woodford County Public Library in Versailles.

Pete’s job is to lay still and allow the children to read to him and pet him while they read.

“Reading to a dog, the children don’t feel that someone is going to correct them and this helps them greatly improve their reading skills” Polanco said.

The children believe Pete understands what they are reading and often ask him if he likes the story or if he wants to hear them read another book. For Pete, it’s an opportunity to catch a little snooze. “It’s a sharing time, a comforting time,” Polanco said.

As Pete’s handler, Polanco has to be present with Pete when the therapy sessions occur.

Although Polanco is fluent in both English and Spanish, Pete receives all his instruction in English, with the exception of two words. Pete understands “vamos,” Spanish for “let’s go,” and “parque,” Spanish for park.

The therapy sessions are a way for way for Polanco to back to the community that embraced him and his wife when they moved to Lexington from their native Colombia.

“We are so grateful for being here,” Polanco said. “We try to give back through community service.”

To read more about the Central Kentucky Love on a Leash or to join log on to www.loalcky.com.

Polanco, who has worked for the city’s Division of Building Inspection for 11 years, and his wife, Yolanda, who works for the Division of Youth Services, are both artists and have exhibited their works at several city employee arts exhibits.

They will again exhibit their work at the Downtown Art Center as part of the exhibit “I.den.ti.ty: A Contemporary Art with Latino Influencefrom Sept.19-Nov. 3.

“Everyone is invited to the gala at 6 p.m. Sept. 25, where some of our art will be for sale,” Polanco said.