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Reading, 'riting and RUFF at Woodland

Amanda Marsh • Jan 24, 2012 at 10:41 PM

News of Gus’ entrance into Laura Rainwater’s classroom spread quickly. Whispers and gasps of pure excitement made it hard to pay attention to the task at had.

The 2-year-old St. Bernard strolled into the room looking for his first reading partners. He and owner Debbie Imsande visit the group of second-graders at Woodland Elementary School each Tuesday as part of the RUFF Reading Program in Johnson City schools. The students take turns reading to Gus, and while one reads, the other pets his shaggy fur coat.

“I’m kind of nervous about reading to Gus for the first time,” said Madalyn Bookout.

Reading to Gus is a big deal for the students, who love patting his floppy ears and long furry tail as they crowd around him in the center of the classroom. They’ve formed a pretty tight bond with the big, lovable dog and even bought him treats and bones for Christmas instead of exchanging gifts among themselves.

“You can tell he’s having fun because he’s panting and looking around,” said 7-year-old Kinley Norris.

The second-graders first met the canine in November, which is when Rainwater’s class was chosen, along with Robin Adams’ kindergartners, to receive visits from Gus for the remainder of the school year.

“We had to sign up for the chance to have Gus in our rooms,” Rainwater said. “I was really excited when I found out he would be coming. It’s definitely something you don’t have everyday.”

When Madalyn’s one-on-one time with Gus came, she read him and Imsande a story she had written herself, as did many of the other readers. Kinley also read Gus a story she authored herself, about one of her best four-legged friends.

“When he came in, something just popped up in my head, and I said ‘I could write a story about Gus,’ ” Kinley said. “And since it’s my reading day I could share it with him.”

She wrote about the time she saw Gus in the carpool line and he recognized her through the window.

“ ... This was the funniest part, he jumped up on the seat and starting panting and licking the window because he wanted me so bad, so I knew what to write about,” Kinley said with a giggle.

While Kinley’s classmate Kylie Smith read to Gus, the two of them couldn’t help but laugh when his big, droopy tongue came pretty close to wetting the pages of Kylie’s book.

And even with all the attention he gets from students, the flattering tales about Gus really perk his ears up.

“He’s really just this big furry thing of love and initially we got him to be a therapeutic, loving dog in our own home,” Imsande said. “The kids have really taken to him and get so excited and write stories about him, draw pictures for him and get excited that they think he knows them and recognizes them.”

Before Gus could become a permanent visitor at Woodland, he and Imsande had to meet several requirements, including the Human and Animal Bonding in Tennessee, or HABIT, certification through the University of Tennessee Veterinarian School.

“He has the perfect personality for this line of work,” Imsande said.

Gus passed each of the tests and now wears his red bandana proudly as he trots down the halls of Woodland.

“It’s been much more than I even imagined, even in this short period of time,” Imsande said. “I enjoy listening to their stories. It’s something I have a heart for with kids and pets.”

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