Sunshine is a Golden Retriever that inspires kids to read. She also draws them to the Beaches branch library in Neptune Beach.
When 8-year-old Daniela Yankova recently had an opportunity to read a book to Sunshine at the library, she chose a book called “Barbie – a Fairy Secret,” because Sunshine is a girl.
As Daniela read, she held the book with her left hand while petting Sunshine with her right. “It is fun reading to a dog, I love dogs,” Daniela said. “And when I see a cute dog, I have to hug it.”
Sunshine got lots of hugs that day from Daniela and a group of other children who came to read to her. Sunshine’s owner, Dot Mitchell of Jacksonville Beach, brings her to the library every other Wednesday afternoon from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. because those are early dismissal days for Duval County schools. She also brings her on special occasions and sometimes on weekends.
As a trained “reading dog,” Sunshine is a natural because she’s calm around children, Mitchell said.
“She’d stay here all day if someone pets her,” Mitchell said. “She’s very patient.”
Sunshine is a reading dog through the Patriot Service Dogs organization, which raises and trains dogs to be service dogs for men and women who have been injured or who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder while serving in the military.
Sunshine is Mitchell’s second reading dog. Mitchell raises puppies for service, many for Patriot Service Dogs, preparing them to be matched with a person in need. Years ago, she raised a dog named “Liebchen” who was unable to be placed because she had a genetic hip displacement, so Mitchell kept her and trained her to be a reading dog. Liebchen died shortly after Mitchell bought Sunshine to be her personal pet, so Mitchell trained Sunshine to take her place. Sunshine is the only reading dog in the Patriot organization and Mitchell uses her to bring awareness to the program.
Sunshine has a canine good citizenship certification and goes to training classes. She is now learning to do “nose work,” which is searching for items based on scent. That’s a hobby for fun, Mitchell said.
Sunshine is a good reading dog because she’s not reactive, Mitchell said. “Reading dogs need to be calm because you never know what children are going to do.” If a child steps on her tail, she won’t react because she loves kids so much she’ll tolerate anything.
Once a little boy threw a book at her, “and she just looked at him and wagged her tail,” Mitchell said.
Reading to Sunshine gives kids confidence to read aloud. Some are shy and don’t like to be corrected if they make a mistake, Mitchell said. They know Sunshine will just listen. It also inspires them to read books.
“Mothers tell me their kids don’t like to read, but they’ll read to the dog,” Mitchell said. “Some kids want to come to the library just to see Sunshine. That’s flattering.”